New Book Says Lewis and Clark Couldn’t Have Survived Without Nez Perce
The Lewis and Clark Expedition spent a considerable amount of time with three tribes during its two-year quest from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean. The first winter was spent with the Hidatsa and Mandan people in North Dakota. The second winter they lived amongst the Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia. The third tribe was the Nez Perce, or Nimiipuu who lived amidst the steep mountains and river valleys of what is now central Idaho. Were it not for the help of the Nimiipuu, in three instances, the expedition likely would not have survived.
Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipuu, published earlier this year, tells of the time spent with the Nimiipuu. It’s the only book to dwell just on the time spent with one tribe and it’s written from the Native viewpoint.
It’s co-authored by Allen V. Pinkham and Steven R. Evans. Pinkham is a Nimiipuu and a noted tribal historian. He has served on the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council, helped create the Chief Joseph Foundation, and was a board member for the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
Evans is not Native but his wife, Connie, is a Nimiipuu. Evans taught history for 33 years at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, Idaho. For the past 11 years he has worked with Pinkham researching and writing about the Nez Perce and the Lewis and Clark expedition.
I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the authors about the book.
There have been many books written about Lewis and Clark. Why did you write this book?
AVP: When I was a young guy my dad would tell us “I told them what they wanted to hear.” Then he told me the real story. We put some of this in the book. About 1999 we got real serious about the book. Steve was the wordsmith and I tried to guide him. We wanted to do this from the tribal side. It was a real corroborative effort because we came up with a good piece of work.
The initial meeting between the tribe and the expedition could have gone either way but ended friendly. Do you think it would have been different if the warriors had been there rather than warring with the Shoshones?
AVP: I think it would have been a little different. There would have been more debate about should we kill them or not. A map we found showed an ambush site at Weippe. They had things we needed and wanted. It would make our lives easier. What would happen if we killed them all? We knew that east of the Mississippi there were tens upon tens of thousands of these same kinds of creatures.
We know of the expedition’s horrible physical condition when they first met the Nimiipuu. They likely wouldn’t have survived without their help, but what about the help from the tribe during the expedition’s canoe passage to the ocean?
SRE: Twisted Hair told them which tree to select. Many of the tribal people stepped in and showed them the correct way to do a dugout canoe out of ponderosa pine. What’s the point of helping these guys and making sure they live through the time of near starvation and help them get canoes if they’re going to go down the river and drown anyway. We’ll never get the trade we want. When they left Orofino they didn’t have Nez Perce guides and had two or three canoe wrecks within the first few hours. Old Chief Looking Glass and several of his friends rode down the riverbank ahead of them most of the way, stopping at villages and telling them these guys are coming.
Were there significant differences between the expedition’s diaries and the oral history of the Nimiipuu?
SRE: I would say so! Here’s an example. When Sergeant Ordway went to the Snake River looking for salmon he came back and said “they came and stole some of our salmon we had traded for.” We know it’s the distribution of available resources. If someone comes to a village and says “I have no salmon and want to take some to my family” they are told to take some. That’s just a distribution of resources to those in need. That’s part of our culture—no one goes without. According to Ordway it was stolen.
They returned the next spring heading east and again spent several weeks with the tribe. Did the tribe’s opinion of them change during that time?
AVP: The second trip had a more close and intimate contact, both negative and positive.
SRE: [The feeling was] they’re just another tribe of people so let’s do with them the same as we do with the Yakamas, Umatillas and everybody else. Intermarry with them and trade with them.
The expedition’s rush to leave that spring was a fiasco. Would it be correct to say the Nimiipuu once again saved the expedition from disaster?
AVP: Yes. Some of our people got so attached to some of the expedition they showed them all the way over Lolo Pass to the Blackfoot River in Montana. They also exchanged gifts. It’s an exchange of gifts that sets up a relationship.
It’s pretty well established that sexual encounters were common between expedition men and Native women. Are there any descendents from those unions still living on the reservation?
AVP: Yes. There are probably hundreds. I’m a descendent of Red Bear. We think it’s the daughter of Red Bear who had the relationship with William Clark. Clark leaves a son; York leaves a son and maybe a couple of other young men also.
The book ends with a final chapter outlining the years after Lewis and Clark. Despite the close friendships that developed and promises of peace and good things to come, the future wasn’t that bright. Some good things happened including the Treaty of 1855, which remains a sacred document but that was followed eight years later by the “Steal Treaty,” which reduced the reservation by 90 percent. Then in 1877 the Nez Perce War happened, causing a split in the tribe and a terrible loss of life. That was followed by the Allotment Act in 1887, all tremendous changes in a lifetime.