Lewis and Clark Bicentennial
Land loss, racism and beyond
PORTLAND, Ore. - The so-called peace medals that the Corps of Discovery
handed out en route to the mouth of the Columbia River from 1804 - 1806
proved to be anything but that. And the pious references to "the great
father" that stitch the Lewis and Clark journals together are now known, by
the thoughtful at least, as thinly-disguised statements that heralded a
vast and pervasive land grab people are still coming to terms with. That's
why commemoration, not celebration, is the word coming down from the Circle
of Tribal Advisors coordinating American Indian activities associated with
the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial (www.lewisandclark200.org).
President Thomas Jefferson, of course, was the man at the helm during the
era. But even after the windfall of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803,
Jefferson knew that he still needed to buy the land from the Native
proprietors. At least that's the pitch professor of law at Lewis and Clark
Law School Robert Miller made at a recent symposium. "I submit to you
folks," Miller said, "that this was not just tourist activity."
But along with a sense of humor, Miller has a keen intellect, not to
mention a compassionate heart. He noted that one of his students called him
on using the term "racist" in his remarks. Miller's reply was, "What else
do you call it? One country imposing their doctrine of discovery on another
with the power of the sword. That is racist. All the doctrine of discovery
that the United States used to legitimize its activities does is give them
a legal patina."
On a copper tea kettle, the patina that arises with years of use gives the
vessel a warm burnished glow. But in the legal department, a patina that
covers over truly injurious intent has a less lovely aura about it. Still,
the nation was on the move. The taste of continental dominance that the
Louisiana Purchase gave the powers that be on the East Coast was like
tasting sugar for the first time. Nobody looked back.
At least until more recently. Perhaps the reason that scholars like Miller
are discovering is simply the sad story of what the tribes have always
known at one level or another.
Jefferson's approach via Lewis and Clark was to tell tribal chiefs that
they could live on their lands forever, but that if they decided to sell,
they had to deal only with the United States of America. "The basic content
of the speeches Lewis and Clark delivered over and over was that Jefferson
is your great white father and you are his children," said Miller. "The
idea was that 'we are the ones you deal with now, not the French or the
Or take the branding iron Meriwether Lewis carried on the expedition. "Why
is he taking the branding iron? Nothing short of branding the landscape to
show who's here," said Miller.
The professor argued that it was for the same reason that Lewis and Clark
built Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop. "They weren't just temporary winter
quarters," Miller said. "The group was on a mission to establish the United
States' doctrine of discovery and to claim the Northwest. It was all about
possession and military occupation."
Miller, of course, is not the first scholar to realize what went on. Norman
Graebner and Bernard Sheehan, two of America's foremost historians, have
both written volumes on the idea that Jefferson's goal was an "empire on
the Pacific;" and to get that, the president needed control of the
In his 1973 work titled Seeds of Extinction, Sheehan referred to a report
Lewis wrote for Jefferson after the explorer returned to the East: "The
Tetons are the vilest miscreants of the savage race and ever remain the
pirates of the Missouri, until such measures are pursued, by our
government, as will make them feel a dependence on its will for their
supply of merchandise."
It was precisely during the era of Lewis and Clark, from 1795 - 1822, that
the federal government established 28 trading posts across the continent.
Miller's take on the intent of this activity dovetails with Sheehan's.
"Jefferson's goal was to get the leading men into debt so they'd be
inclined to sell off land to pay their bills," said Miller. "If you look at
the treaties, there are even provisions written in that talk about paying
Great white father. Peace medals. Racism. Paternalism. That's why the
tribes - and increasing numbers of scholars on college campuses across the
nation - know that the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial is not a cause for
celebration, but rather for commemoration.