<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=192888919167017&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Sunday, March 3, 2024
March 3, 2024

Linkedin Pinterest

Discovering ‘Native Women’s Views of Lewis and Clark’

Tribe elder describes cultural misunderstandings, close calls for explorers on their journey

By , Columbian City Government Reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Sam Robinson, center, acting chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, beats a drum and sings a traditional song of blessing Sunday at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse in Ridgefield before a presentation about native women's views of Lewis and Clark.
Sam Robinson, center, acting chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation, beats a drum and sings a traditional song of blessing Sunday at the Cathlapotle Plankhouse in Ridgefield before a presentation about native women's views of Lewis and Clark. Photo Gallery

RIDGEFIELD — When the bedraggled Lewis and Clark Expedition showed up in the Lower Columbia River area in 1805, they weren’t the sort of visitors the Chinook Indians were accustomed to.

The bearded, smelly men in rotting clothes rejected the Natives’ sacred salmon for dog meat. They misunderstood gift-giving practices. And they had an infuriating habit of disregarding the Native women, who sat on tribal councils, made decisions, could vote and own property, Wasco Tribe elder Pat Courtney Gold said Sunday in her presentation, “Native Women’s Views of Lewis and Clark.”

“They never, ever figured out that these were matriarchal tribes. So they were constantly talking to the wrong people on their trip,” said Gold, speaking to an audience of about 60 people inside the Cathlapotle Plankhouse at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Gold, a resident of Scappoose, Ore., said she began collecting other tribes’ oral histories of Lewis and Clark more than a decade ago, when cities along the explorers’ travel route were planning festivities to commemorate the expedition’s 200th anniversary. After scrutinizing a list of speakers slated for a particular event, Gold told her husband, “These are all white people. All they did was research books.”

“Why don’t you do it?” her husband replied.

And so Gold reached out to tribal elders and family members to find out what the Natives thought of Capt. Meriwether Lewis, Second Lt. William Clark and their entourage. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, the expedition set out in May 1804 to explore and map the western United States territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase before returning to St. Louis in September 1806.

Sunday, in the traditional Chinookan plankhouse draped with cedar boughs and animal hides, Gold told of how the Nez Perce tribe initially considered massacring Lewis and Clark’s group to acquire their rifles, hatchets and luggage. But when the tribal council discussed killing them, a female elder recounted how French fur traders once had helped her return home safely after she’d been kidnapped by another tribe as a girl. She convinced the rest of the council to take in the starving travelers, who had resorted to eating crows, coyotes and even their own candles while crossing the Bitterroot range in the Rockies.

“I don’t think Lewis and Clark ever knew how close they came to ending their journey at the foot of the Rocky Mountains,” Gold said.

The expedition encountered trouble on the Columbia River in their dugout canoes, which capsized at least once a day. Then the group would spread its sodden belongings along the riverbanks to dry, not realizing the Native custom of spreading out gifts on the ground as a friendly gesture when passing through another tribes’ territory, Gold said. As a result, Lewis and Clark angrily complained in their journals about “thieving” Indians.

The misunderstandings abounded. For instance, the Natives would catch salmon, dry the fish and pound it into a highly concentrated powder meant to be eaten a couple of spoonfuls at a time, Gold said. However, ravenous members of the expedition gobbled down the powder until they were sick and then decided the salmon was bad. So the men switched to dog meat. They had no interest in the clams, sea vegetables, roots or plants the natives offered them, either, which puzzled tribe members who could tell the men were sickly.

And throughout the trip, Lewis and Clark tried to do business only with male Natives, Gold said.

When they finally returned home, Gold noted, President Jefferson rewarded everyone in the expedition with a land grant — except for York, Clark’s male slave, and Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone teenage girl who’d served as the group’s guide and interpreter.

Loading...
Columbian City Government Reporter