Mene, mene, Tekel Upharsin
"Thou hast been weighed in the balances,
and art found wanting."
The Corps of Discovery's graffiti served a simple political purpose, although individuals may have taken a personal delight in participating in the practice. But they were just leaving their tags—their names, as Clark did on Pompy's Tower, or their initials. Compared with today's well known urban styles, they didn't do any "crazy big wildstyle burners." No "getting up in a major way." No dissing the locals. And no latrinalia that we know of.
Of course, locals such as the Crow people might have thought of it another way. For the expedition's purposes, their tags needed to be in conspicuous places, and this rock, iish-biia ah-naac'he, was definitely that. Even if the Crows interpreted Clark's graffiti as a claim to ownership, they might have dismissed it as arrogant at worst, or frivolous at best. Bad taste, perhaps, like defiling a sacred site, since this was a place for vision quests. In future years it may have implied a lingering presence that was as offensive and disquieting to them as unexpected and inexplicable graffiti in our own neighborhoods is to us today.
It was indeed a political statement, indecipherable inasmuch as its readers had no written language themselves, or at least no alphabet akin to ours. They couldn't, at the time, have recognized Clark's graffiti as his name, and it clearly was not a pictograph. The date, also, would have been meaningless to the Crow, who lacked numerals identical with ours. That four of the digits represented a certain year would have been incomprehensible, too, since they knew nothing of the "Christian era." The letters and numbers would have been as cryptic to them as Arab or Hebrew characters are to most Americans. The Indians couldn't imagine the sounds of them, much less make sense of them. In Indian terms, they were mysterious—pure Medicine. As to whether it was good or bad medicine we cannot know, but when we find graffiti on a shrine of our own, we tend to assume we have somehow, by someone unknown, been "weighed in the balances and found wanting."
On at least one occasion—at the mouth of the Marias—the Corps of Discovery is known to have left tags with bad medicine in mind. Sergeant Ordway, perhaps copying Clark's entry, reported on June 10, 1805:
We halled out our largest perogue [the red one] in the middle of an Island in the North fork opposite the point, and made hir fast between Some trees, & amp;branded Several trees to prevent the Savages from disturbing hir.
The graffiti the captains and their men painted or carved on trees is all long gone.1 There was no political need for it to last as long as Clark's tag on Pompy's Tower has. But the fact that it has endured, thanks to the efforts of many individuals since the late 19th century, has made it a historic shrine deemed worthy of the full protection of our government.
Clark's graffiti still does precisely what he intended it to do. It simply says "William Clark was here on July 25, 1806." To many of us it is a visible link to our nation's early history—it is Good Medicine.
1. There is a so-called "Clark Tree" near the west end of their route across the Bitterroot Mountains that once appeared to bear Clarkπs initials. But if it did, we canπt make them out now, for the lofty 250-year-old Western white pine (Pinus monticola Dougl. ex D. Don) has sealed the old wound with a scar, and the letters are no longer legible. Some rock carvings have been found along the trail that have been attributed to members of the Corps of Discovery, but no corroboration resides in the available journals, and they may thus be only later coincidences, if not outright hoaxes.