It’s oft quoted that history is written by the victors. This could be said of Lewis and Clark, whose journals are the authoritative source as to what transpired on their U.S.-sponsored journey west 200 years ago.There are two sides to every story.
“Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipuu,” gives the Nez Perce side of the 114 days tribal members spent with the explorers. Turns out there were things the explorers weren’t inclined to put in writing and there was a lot they didn’t understand.
The new book was written by Nez Perce elder and storyteller Allen V. Pinkham, 75, of Lenore, and retired Lewis-Clark State College history professor Steven R. Evans, 70, of Lapwai. It is one of the first full accounts of the expedition by a native people.
While serving on national and state Lewis Clark Bicentennial Committees, Pinkham often heard archaeologists and anthropologists claim to be authoritative sources on Nimiipuu history. The problem was nothing they said matched what he’d heard from his father and other elders.
American Indian history is an oral tradition, with stories passed down over centuries. Pinkham knew he needed more than “because my father told me” to prove Nez Perce accounts. Over 11 years, he and Evans recorded interviews with numerous Nez Perce elders, scoured old records, visited archives and retraced ancient trails to compare the collective tribal memory to the day-by-day narratives of the explorers. The result is a fascinating look at Nez Perce history, culture, tradition and a fresh take on the clash of two cultures that generates controversy on both sides.
“Now I’m comfortable saying this is what really happened,” says Pinkham.
First Impressions — The Walking Dead
Nez Perce described the Lewis and Clark party as motley looking and smelling. One elder used the word “churlish.” Some described the newcomers as spiritually “disconnected,” walking “dead people” with their heads upside down. This was in reference to bald men with beards. They wondered if they were related to dogs or bears because of their hairy faces and bad odor. They had glassy eyes, like fish.
Not all were of the same opinion. Some Nez Perce women found the men beautiful on first sight.
York, the sole black man on the expedition, was of special curiosity. Tribal members wondered if he was painted for war, in mourning and seeking vengeance. Perhaps he was related to the black bear? Women had him undress at a creek where they tried to rub off his color.
And They Eat Dogs
The Nez Perce were disturbed that members of the corps, including Lewis, ate dogs. Dogs helped with tracking and hunting and tribal members found eating them offensive.
Lewis wrote about an incident this clash inspired. An Indian threw a half-starved puppy at his plate “by way of derision for our eating dogs.” Lewis threatened him with a tomahawk, the man withdrew and Lewis finished his “repast on dog without further molestation.”
A Nimiipuu man named Pakaowna gave a different account in 1903. He said that out of politeness the Nez Perce sometimes ate horse with corps members but they would never eat dog. A woman was talked into trading a puppy to Lewis. She reluctantly received a ribbon and other small items in trade but later Chief Red Grizzly Bear, her relative, found them to be cheap. Lewis killed the puppy and put it over some coals. The woman’s young daughter became upset watching her playmate cook. Another relative, a young man disgusted by the dog eating, threw another dog at Lewis in jest. Lewis threw it back at the man before taking up his weapon.
Let’s Kill Them
While the Nez Perce are remembered for rescuing the Lewis and Clark party they seriously considered killing them.
The arrival of white people was prophesied long before the explorers appeared in a Nez Perce camp. The Nez Perce could describe white people before they saw them. This was because tribal members had traveled extensively around North America. One of the great myths is that, “We were out here in the wilderness waiting for civilization to show up,” says Pinkham.
Prophesies foretold the white people would bring good and bad. Some thought that by killing them they could possibly thwart the bad.
While there are names of Nez Perce men in expedition journals, no females are named. Coming from a culture where women were not considered equal to men, Lewis and Clark likely did not recognize female leadership around them. It is only through Nez Perce tradition that the name of Watkuweis is preserved, she being the person who convinced her tribe not to kill the newcomers.
Nez Perce women owned their own horses, canoes, saddles and equipment. They could divorce at will. In short, Nez Perce women were more powerful than their female pioneer equivalents.
Let’s Make Them Family
One of the most controversial claims of “Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce” is that Clark left a son among the Nez Perce. Nez Perce tradition supports the story, adding that York also left children.
“Feats of love,” as expedition member Patrick Gass called them, were not useful information for government records, although Lewis did mention the “tawny damsels” they encountered.
It’s said Clark’s son was conceived at Kamiah and he became known as Capon Rouge (Red Head), Clark, and Daytime Smoker, which is also what the Nez Perce called the elder Clark because of his tobacco habit. His mother was a female relative of Chief Red Grizzly Bear.
In support of oral history, the authors present a drawing of Daytime Smoker by a German artist at the 1855 Treaty signing. He was pushed forward by chiefs to tell the Americans whose son he was. Next to a portrait of Clark, there is a striking resemblance.
Tribal traditions say that York had two “girl friends,” and perhaps had children by both. Stories say one died but the other son’s descendants continue to live in the area.
Pinkham says some Nez Perce argue the women involved in these encounters must have been raped. That’s another myth, he says. Nez Perce were doing the same thing as European royalty, forming alliances through family. Children were a living symbol of an alliance because only a savage would make war upon his own.
The Nez Perce put much faith in the alliance they brokered with the explorers and, as the book details, it shaped their decisions involving the U.S. government over the coming years.
if you go
WHO: Steve R. Evans and Allen V. Pinkham, authors of “Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipuu” will give an overview of their book.
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday, Oct. 14
WHERE: Cleveland Hall, Room 30E, Washington State University, Pullman
OF NOTE: The book is available online and at the Visitor Center at Nez Perce National Historical Park at Spalding, which is currently closed because of the government shutdown.