Lewis and Clark expedition introduced the United States to the richness and abundance of a new land as well as specialness of each encountered tribe. The two agents of the American empire were regarded as heroes who showed both teamwork and diplomatic skills during the exploration of a new territory. Their contribution to the American history could not be underestimated. However, the Bicentennial of 2004 was not planned as a celebration of their glorious journey. From the Native American perspective, it was a commemoration of the previous life because Lewis and Clark expedition marked the beginning of their genocide.


After the purchase of Louisiana territory, the United States pursued a policy of westward expansion and proclamation of American sovereignty over the territory. A new land with its inhabitants had a large potential for trade development. Therefore, Jefferson launched Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the land and establish trustful relationships with Native Americans. Without friendly ties, he would not be able to realize his ambitions. Thus, a significant part of Jefferson’s Indian diplomacy was to provide the Corps with generous gifts and a store of goods for Native Americans.

Lewis and Clark had to use all their diplomatic skills and be lavish in gifts in order to build friendship with Indians and secure American influence. Their objective was to establish trade with them and maintain peace between tribes. The Corps proclaimed American sovereignty on the new land and promised that the new American Father would make the lives of the “red children” peaceful and prosperous. He would amply reward them for submission to him and America. Moreover, Lewis and Clark invited tribal chiefs to visit the American Father in Washington. A new order was virtually established under threat. In a delicate hint, they made it clear that the United States would cut off the trade and bring sufferings to those Indians who would cooperate with Spanish, French or British fathers.

Moving up the Missouri river, Lewis and Clark expedition encountered many tribes. The Corps of Discovery took part in common activities with Indians such as hunting, dancing, and military displays. They showed respect to Indians when they participated in local rituals (for example, smoking a pipe) and accepted their gifts. Native Americans eagerly brought food in exchange for goods that were valuable for them. In order to please the chiefs, Lewis and Clark presented whiskey, tobacco, medals, and other gifts as a symbol of their friendship and sincere intentions. The first encounter with the Otos and Missouris proved that the tribes were mainly interested in commerce. Therefore, the promises to trade only with American nation and keep intertribal peace were not credible. Jefferson’s particular interest was the Sioux group because of their military and economic power.  They extended their influence over other groups and had a reputation of the hostile tribe. Unfortunately, splendid gifts made no impression over them, and the Corps of Discovery failed to build trade contacts. The Sioux conflict and unkind behavior nearly drew two sides into military actions. The encounter with the Arikara Indians brought no success to Lewis and Clark because this tribe largely depended on the Sioux and was not ready to accept the American policy. Such tribes as the Yanktons, the Shoshonis, and the Nez Perce met the Corps of Discovery with a friendly welcome because they sought steady trade connections for survival and protection. They were in need of firearms and ammunition.

Long negotiations with the tribes of the Mandan and Hidatsa ended with uncertainty and suspicion to accept the American order and establish a new trading contact. Approaching the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark expedition encountered several coastal tribes (such as the Skilloots), whose thievish behavior formed a negative opinion of the river Indians and built untrusting relationships with them. Moreover, a theft of some goods provoked to shoot and kill two Blackfeet men.

However, Lewis and Clark expedition would not have been successful without Indians’ assistance. The tribes of the Nez Perce, the Walula, the Shoshone, and the Hidatsa eagerly helped to draw maps, provide valuable route information, guide through the unknown land, and support with food and horses. Though there was often misunderstanding and confusion, friendly cooperation of both sides and Indians’ willingness to help the explorers saved the expedition from death and contributed to the scientific development. Moreover, one should not underestimate the importance of Sacagawea’s presence among the Corps. She was a young Shoshoni woman, married to an American Charbonneau. Sacagawea was a valuable translator in many negotiations with Native Americans. Her presence in the Corps with a little child was a symbol of peace and immediately reassured Indians that the expedition did not have hostile intentions.

In general, Lewis and Clark expedition was a dramatic change for the Native Americans. It introduced western elements of life to Indians and aroused interest in a new trading partner. Yet, the majority of tribes were resistant to accept American policy of sovereignty and intertribal peace. Their relationships with European Americans were more commercial rather than social. The expedition confronted Indians with a fact that they were subordinate children of the Great Father who would not tolerate disobedience if they refused to accept the sovereignty. Indians, who previously lived independently and had their own social structures and intertribal relationships, found themselves in the “web of American power.” Indeed, Lewis and Clark laid claim to the new discovered territories under the principle of the Doctrine of Discovery. Moreover, as part of the Doctrine, Jefferson intended to gain control over “Indian political, legal, and commercial affairs” in order to strengthen American influence.

A successful homecoming of the expedition was more than just a scientific achievement for the United States. It stirred nation’s consciousness and fostered an American policy of the Manifest Destiny, according to which the United States was designed to extend its territory to the Pacific Northwest and establish a powerful empire.12 As a result, Native Americans became subjects of the United States government. Their rights and property fell into hands of the American authority. Though opportunities for trade and weapon supply benefited Native Americans after Lewis and Clark’s journey, the expedition laid the foundation for the dispossession process and reservation system. It encouraged westward invasion by the European Americans, who moved to the new land and pushed back Native Americans. With more people settling in, the process of Indians’ dispossession became more violent and conflicting.13 Lewis and Clark expedition cleared the way for the national expansion as well as cultural oppression of the Native Americans.

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