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Frenchmen, Bears, and Sandbars
Vine Deloria, Jr.
Vine Deloria, Jr., is a member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Fort Yates, North Dakota. He is perhaps the only American whose educational history ranges as far and wide as a New England prep school (Kent), the U.S. Marine Corps Telephone Repair School in San Diego, the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, and membership in the faculty of a prestigious state university.
Deloria is currently retired professor of history and an adjunct professor of law, religious studies, and political science at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Best known to the general public as an author (his works include Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto, 1969; Red Earth, White Lies, 1995; among many other books), he has been a college professor since the early 1970s and an activist in Indian affairs since the 1960s. From 1964 to 1967, for example, he was executive director of the National Congress of American Indians; in the mid-seventies he founded and chaired the Institute for the Development of Indian Law; in the nineties, after serving as vice chairman of the Board of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, he became chairman of its Repatriation Committee.
Vine Deloria, Jr., has received honors early and often for his work as a writer and scholar, but unique among these was his nomination in 1974 as one of eleven "Theological Superstars of the Future."
While his Sioux forebears chose confrontation in their encounter with Lewis and Clark, Deloria chooses a potent sense of historical irony.
Frenchmen, Bears, and Sandbars
Exaggeration of the importance of the expedition of Lewis and Clark is a typical American response to mythology. We prefer our fantasies in opposition to the facts of life. It was a routine venture now revered because we desperately need to have a heroic past, since that pleasure is denied to us in the present. The expedition was initiated following Jefferson's finesse of Congress and the Constitution in the purchase of a mere claim by France that it "owned" a substantial portion of the North American West because a Frenchman had first set foot on lands drained by the Mississippi. Not only did the expedition seek a practical water route to the West Coast with the eventual goal of opening the Pacific to American commerce, but Jefferson also needed to prove that the purchase of an unknown territory was not a white elephant. (He did, however, caution Lewis and Clark to be on the lookout for mammoths while en route.)
Since traditionally historians have understood the journey as the first effort by civilized men to pierce the unknown West, we often tend to clothe the accounts of Lewis and Clark in more heroic terms than they seem to have deserved. Much good history falls by the wayside when we stress the heroics and neglect the context of their journey in our understanding. The expedition actually seems to have been a tedious march from one place to another made known to them by Indians and French traders, with an occasional incident to testify to the strangeness of the land and the unique challenges that the West presented.
After reading through the journals edited by Elliott Coues, my impression of the memorable experiences of the expedition, the things that would have remained with its members years after their return, revolved around three major topics, although I must admit that a strong case might be made for several other themes. But the things that impressed me were the fact that Frenchmen had already explored much of this region so that it was reasonably well known to many people, that there seemed to be an oversupply of bears on the prairies and bottomlands, and that sandbars posed a continuing barrier to the expedition, making the development of a heavy and easy commerce with the Orient via an inland waterway impossible. Indeed, travel later to the Montana area depended heavily on the spring snowmelt and required special flat-bottom boats.
The accounts of the journey to the West Coast contain those wonderful naïve observations that always come with first discovery. Consequently the responses of the Corps of Discovery to these new experiences provide us with good insight into their feelings and what they believed they were doing, and record the occasional misfortunes of the group, which became traumas because they were unexpected. Entries on the return trip record fewer surprises and illustrate the confidence and sometimes arrogance that experience often brings.
That they had the confidence that they could split the little company and explore different river systems with the expectation that they knew the land so well that they could meet again in more familiar territory suggests that they felt they had conquered the West. The final report would therefore be couched in the optimistic terms of men who had overcome severe hardships and now stood ready for another challenge. They had breached the unknown, albeit with considerable assistance from the local inhabitants, and now believed in their own superiority, a mood that would shortly energize people to emulate their feats and bring about the ruination of the Great American West.
Before we examine the Indian understanding of the expedition, let us walk with the explorers on their first encounter with the land and its peoples. We have traditionally been taught to believe that the Lewis and Clark expedition was the first penetration of white men into the western lands. This belief is totally unfounded. The locations of the Mandan villages, scattered from the present North Dakota-South Dakota line along the Missouri River to some distance above present-day Bismarck, were already common knowledge. French and British traders had already established a thriving commerce with these villages and the sedentary Indians were accustomed to dealing with foreigners.
A good portion of the trip while moving through wild and unoccupied country did not involve discovery of the West but merely followed paths already well established. Thus when the expedition visited the Yankton Sioux camp, the Indians were flying a Spanish flag, and it is well known that these Sioux had attended the British conference at Albany prior to the American Revolution. They would also send warriors to support the British during the War of 1812. The coastal tribes in Washington and Oregon had already been visited by the English and Spanish and had routed the Spanish expansion.
More important, however, was the presence of French trappers in the area. The growing population of half-breeds of French-Indian heritage, some people representing second and perhaps even third generations of men out on the plains, indicated that white men had lived among the tribes for a considerable period of time. Above the great bend near present-day Pierre, South Dakota, the expeditioners visited a Frenchman's house that had no protective palisade, testifying to the fact that the French had successfully melded with the Indians long ago.
French colonial policy had encouraged intermarriage with the Indians and the exchange of children to create kinship bonds with the eastern tribes. The French sought to create a new kind of society of mixed Euro-Indian genetic background that would and could hold the lands claimed by the French king under the Doctrine of Discovery by appealing to their common ancestry. This class of people was now temporarily loyal to whoever could enhance their fortunes. Most of them had extensive experience in wandering the western lands, and, in sharing their knowledge about the land and its people, they enabled Lewis and Clark to anticipate some of the problems that lay ahead. But they had no loyalty to the Americans, nor would they have for some time to come.
The Frenchmen represented a good deal more than easing the psychological burdens of the unknown lying ahead for the expedition. Indeed, their presence indicated the existence of a society in which manufactured goods were becoming increasingly valuable, as steel knives replaced flint weapons and guns were coveted for both hunting and war. The value to be given in exchange for these industrial products would have to be the skins and hides of animals that were temporarily valuable when beaver hats were stylish or when there was a lack of available leather on the European markets. The land could sustain the wildlife it had but was not so productive that animals could replenish their numbers in the face of extensive hunting above and beyond simple human subsistence. The primary objects of Indian commerce were the hides and skins of the animals that also inhabited the land, and there were a finite number of these creatures, although at the time the herds of grazers seemed without number.
Actually in the journals we find few references to large herds of buffalo or even to the massive dams and villages of the beaver, whose pelts would later be the primary items of trapping and trading. Beaver seem to merit sparse attention when recording the fauna of the region. There are probably more references to rattlesnakes than to beaver, since the men seemed almost hypnotized by these serpents, hardly an item of trade. Lewis and Clark almost certainly saw the wildlife as a barrier to be overcome and not as commodities that would constitute the major portion of trade for the next eight decades.
Some of the half-breeds were not descendants of the local tribes. Pierre Dorian, for example, seems to have been part Iowa Indian, as does his wife. Here we see the results of the displacement of tribes in the Midwest who had been trading with the French and British for more than two centuries. Although there had been no removal treaties affecting the midwestern tribes at that time from which these people might have been fleeing, the fabric of their communal life had long since been torn apart by intermarriage and trade wars. As members of the eastern tribes had experienced the course of empire, they joined in and moved west to become a part of the impending invasion and serve as bicultural brokers in the transactions that lay ahead.
This new class of people would also help open the Pacific Northwest to commerce and exploration. As the Hudson's Bay Company extended its trading posts and influence in the western Rockies and Columbia basin, it employed Iroquois voyageurs who had only a smattering knowledge of the Christian religion but loved to sing Catholic hymns, relying on their rhythms to measure the oar strokes of the trade canoes. These hymns would later inspire the Nez Perces and Flatheads to send a delegation to St. Louis in search of these power songs, triggering the missionary movement toward the Oregon country that ended in disaster for all concerned.
Could these people be described as an indigenous population as we think of one today? To the expedition they were indistinguishable from the local tribes except for the obvious language differences and the warlike proclivities of the tribes claiming and defending extensive territories. Certainly they were seen as a different class from tribal Indians in Canada, who eventually become known as the Metis (mixed-blood people), the constituency of Louis Riel, who regarded themselves as equal members of Canadian society. They appear later in the 1870s as invaders of the northern hunting grounds, feared and resisted fiercely by the tribes living in the United States. Annually they brought large numbers of hunters with freight wagons and families south across the border to hunt buffalo when their own herds had been thinned out, thus escalating the depletion of the northern buffalo herd more rapidly than expected.
Certainly the invasive half-breeds played a critical role in arranging the first treaties between the United States and the northern Plains tribes, treaties incidentally negotiated by William Clark after his exploring days were done. As time went on American whites became the scouts, hunters, and interpreters for subsequent expeditions mounted in St. Louis and Leavenworth, and with some exceptions the French-Indian half-breeds declined in importance. Their descendants today dominate tribal politics in most of the Great Lakes and Plains tribes. Indeed, for some tribes, having French ancestors rather than English is a sign of distinction.
Think of what these people represented, however, and we begin to visualize an alternative possible scenario for the settling of the West. The French colonial policy was to encourage intermarriage with the natives and the exchange of children who would be raised in a different society so that over time they would help create a society that treated lands, resources, and people in a much different manner than the English/Americans did. Would the interior of the United States have been developed with a goal of maintaining a sustainable yield of products rather than of exhausting the resources? Would treaties even have been necessary if the various tribes had adopted enough of French culture that they adapted their institutions to resemble those of western Europe and guaranteed equality in both law and custom to new settlers of the region?
Could a mixed-blood government have dealt with the United States on better terms? We would like to think so, although the experiences of the Five Civilized Tribes suggest otherwise. But the Five Tribes possessed valuable farming lands in the South, whereas the northern plains hardly offered the settlers much comfort, so the demand for land would not have been as intense. To what degree would mixed-bloods' willingness to accommodate themselves to technology and opportunity have produced an ecologically sound society?
This distant prospect seems not impossible if we read the journals of the trip. From St. Louis to the Mandan villages it appears that the Frenchmen had a vital place in the region's social environment. Quite casually we learn that the French were building houses and settling in near the Big Bend without any immediate or prolonged conflict with the tribes using the same area as hunting grounds. We can understand the sense of relief felt by the men whenever the expedition came across Frenchmen, as if they had brought the entirety of the European perspective with them. That the Frenchmen felt entirely at home and possessors of the same knowledge of the land as the Indians suggests that in large part the Gallic colonial goal had been achieved.
The experience of the Yankton Sioux with the French and Americans is interesting and demonstrates how deeply the French had intruded into Indian life. As the Corps of Discovery approached the Yankton Sioux territory they encountered Pierre Dorian, Jr., the son of their interpreter who had ensured that they receive a warm and friendly reception. Instead of the haughty attitude that Lewis and Clark often showed toward Indians, negotiations with the Yanktons went smoothly. Their generosity in giving the chiefs both medals and clothing impressed them. A Yankton chief summarized the difference: "I went formerly to the English, and they gave me some clothes; when I went to the Spanish they gave me a medal. But nothing to keep it from my skin; but now you give me a medal and clothes."