Share This Article

Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes

edited by Alvin M. Josephy Jr., Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006, $24.

 Many words were spoken and written by white historians and politicians during the recently completed four-year bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The words of leaders William Clark and Meriwether Lewis and other members of the Corps of Discovery continue to ring in our ears through their wonderful journals. But what about the voice of the Indians whose lands Lewis and Clark crossed on their journey to the Pacific Ocean and back? Sacagawea, a Shoshone women who made the trip, did not keep a journal, and it seems no Indian historian has come out with a full-fledged work on the 200-year-old journey. But Indians have been heard from during the commemoration, according to historian James Ronda. “Perhaps the most important contribution of the entire bicentennial has been the powerful presence of native American voice and perspectives,” he said. Consider Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes part of that contribution. As Alvin M. Josephy Jr. writes in the introduction, “This book attempts to enrich and broadens the accepted approaches to the telling of a great American story.”

Alvin Josephy, who was once called the “leading non-Indian writer about Native Americans,” asked nine Indians—writers, historians and tribal executives—to respond to this question: “What impact, good or bad, immediate or long-range, did the Indians experience from the Lewis and Clark expedition?” What he got was nine essays that vary widely in style, tone and content but which are all worth reading. Josephy died at age 90 in October 2005 shortly after completing this book. Vine Deloria Jr., the author of the book’s first essay (“Frenchmen, Bears, and Sandbars”), also died in 2005. One of the great points that Deloria makes is that French trappers were already among the Indians encountered by Lewis and Clark. “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.” French colonial policy had encouraged intermarriage with the Indians. On the other hand, according to Deloria, “Lewis and Clark, from their comments in the journals, had little respect for the Indians or their institutions.”

The other essays in this 192-page book come from Debra Magpie Earling (“What We See”), Mark N. Trahant (“Who’s Your Daddy?”), Bill Yellowtail (“Meriwether and Billy and the Indian Business”), Roberta Conner (“Our People Have Always Been Here”), Gerard A. Baker (“Mandan and Hidatsa of the Upper Missouri”), Allen V. Pinkham Sr. (“We Ya Oo Yet Soyapo”), Robert and Richard Basch (“The Ceremony at Ne-ah-coxie”) and N. Scott Momaday (“The Voices of Encounter”). Momaday, a poet and writer who won the Pulitzer Prize for the novel House Made of Dawn, calls the journey of Lewis and Clark “a vision quest, and the visions gained were of profound consequences” for all Americans.


Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here