October 28, 2021

The Lewis and Clark Expedition from an Indian Country Perspective

New federal-tribal partnership will deepen the Corps of Discovery journey with stories from the many tribes who helped the explorers find their way.


The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, 4,900 miles from Pennsylvania to Oregon, tells an epic story of two explorers and their crew who made their way across the continent nearly 220 years ago. They traveled through the Plains, over the Rocky Mountains and nearly starved to death before they reached the Pacific Ocean. 

That is not the only story, though.

With a partnership between an Indigenous tourism group and the National Park Service, the tale of the Corps of Discovery expedition will integrate the experiences of Native Americans to describe in their own words how tribes understood Lewis and Clark and their journey.

“If it wasn’t for Indians, Lewis and Clark probably wouldn’t have made it,” said Gail Chehak, tribal relations and outreach manager at the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA), which is collaborating with NPS to develop online itineraries to promote the tribes that intersected with Lewis and Clark on their way across what became the United States.

The online guides will include tribal events and sites, designed to help attract visitors ranging from families and bicycle tours to international tourism. Importantly, the stories will reflect the expedition from an Indigenous perspective, as told by the descendants of those who encountered the explorers as they made their way west. Cultural and geo-tourism will be highlighted on two websites, LewisAndClark.travel and NativeAmerica.travel.

Roberta “Bobbie” Conner, director of Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, the museum and archive of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation. Courtesy photo

Along with promoting tribal activities, the project provides tribes the opportunity to “tell their own story,” said Bobbie Conner, director of Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, the museum and archive depository on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon. “We don’t want anyone to tell or steal our story,” she said. “We’re not only still here but we’re not leaving. We’re not going away.” 

The Corps of Discovery, directed by President Thomas Jefferson, marked the beginning of westward expansion and the Oregon Trail.

“The invasion brought many hardships to our tribes, and it’s so important for the public to hear the story of what took place,” said Mary Liberty Traughber, administrator at the Wildhorse Foundation. “It’s also important to tell the more modern story of our success in retaining our culture and thriving in a new world, despite attempts to assimilate families and erase our culture.”

Allies or enemies?

Some tribes along the Lewis and Clark Trail were friendly to the Corps of Discovery, which was championed by Jefferson, the third president of the United States, following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Others, like the Standing Rock Sioux in South Dakota, considered the white explorers to be trespassers in their homelands. 

In a 2009 Voice of America article, the late LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, a Native American Dakota and Lakota historian who managed tourism for the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation, said she couldn’t understand the fascination with Lewis and Clark. The explorers came “famously close” to battling Allard’s ancestors, the Teton Sioux, whom Clark described as  “vile miscreants.” 

By contrast, Clark found Northwest tribes to be, for the most part, “honest and hospitable.” The 33-person Corps included Sacagawea, a Shoshone woman traded to and raised by Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Tribes, and who was the principal guide for the explorers. The expedition included  Sacagawea’s French fur-trapper husband,  Toussaint Charbonneau, and their infant son, as well as Clark’s first man, York, who was Black. Some 29 soldiers and civilians made up the rest of the expedition, which at certain times and places also included other Native American guides.

A bronze statue of Sacagawea and her infant son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, at Fort Clatsop, near the mouth of Columbia River in Oregon. National Park Service photo by Ben Najera

A Nez Perce woman named Watkuweis helped guide the expedition over the Bitterroot Mountains in Montana, persuading her people to befriend rather than kill the weak and starving strangers from the east. Watkuweis told the Nez Perce, “Do them no hurt.” Five Nez Perce teenagers also helped the men cross the mountains and make camp at Lolo Hot Springs.

The tribes of the arid Columbia Plateau provided the expedition with much-needed food (dogs, mostly). Along the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, tribes provided deer, elk and even a beached whale that had been stripped by Tillamooks of its meat but provided blubber and oil. Essential information, including maps, came from numerous tribes and bands along the Columbia River and down the Pacific Coast, including the Umatilla, Cayuse, Yakama, Wasco, Wishrams, Wanapum, Walla Walla, Cowlitz, Multnomah, Chinooks, Clatsop, Skilloots, Tillamook, Kathlamets, and Wahkiakums.

Hollow promises of the 'great chief'

Lewis and Clark traveled throughout the territories of more than 100 different tribes and bands as they crossed the continent, starting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and ending near Astoria on the Oregon Coast, before the return trip. Today, more than 50 tribes still exist, including many of the historic tribes from the trail. The explorers were charged by Jefferson with finding the “Northwest Passage,” a water route across the continent that didn’t exist.

Jefferson also hoped Lewis and Clark, during their three-year trek (1803-1806), would develop friendly relationships with Indigenous tribes, to assert legal claim to the area, scout for potential military outposts and develop an American fur trade to rival that of the French and British.

Through the exchange of gifts, and following Jefferson's instructions to treat the Indigenous people “in the most friendly and conciliatory manner,” it was hoped that Lewis and Clark could acquire knowledge from the tribes, including languages. At Jefferson’s direction, the explorers informed tribes that they had a new “great chief” or “father” who would take care of them. They encouraged tribes to send delegations of important tribal leaders east to meet the president. Lewis and Clark also documented a wealth of information about the continent west of the Mississippi River in their journals and maps of their travels, including the regional geology, flora and fauna. 

Although several of the Oregon reservations are not on the actual Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, Indigenous people from many of the tribes who had contact with the explorers, both on their journey to the Pacific and on their way back east, were later relocated to those reservations.

Courtesy of the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association

As an example, many of the tribes relocated to the Grand Ronde Reservation had interacted with Lewis and Clark. One of Clark’s journal entries from April 2, 1806 details the number of tribes or bands that the explorers encountered: 

“Soon after I arrived at this river an old man passed down of the Clark a’mas Nation who are numerous and reside on a branch of this river which receives it’s waters from Mt. Jefferson which is emensely high and discharges itself into this river one day and a half up, this distance I State at 40 Miles. This nation inhabits 11 Villages their Dress and language is very Similar to the Qhath-lah-poh-tle and other tribes on Wappato Island.”

Sara Thompson, deputy press secretary with the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, said the Grand Ronde have been actively involved in the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail since the bicentennial events 20 years ago and “firmly believe that tribes should be an active part in the telling of their own stories.”

‘We’re still here’

Over a two-year period, AIANTA, headquartered in Albuquerque, is conducting interviews with tribes and making site visits in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas to develop content and create regional itineraries along the 4,900-mile trail including tribally owned destinations. 

Six of the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon have been invited to participate in the cultural tourism project, including the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, and the Coquille Indian Tribe.

Several tribal profiles have been generated following AIANTA interviews and visits to reservations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana, with more than 100 tribal representatives and entrepreneurs interviewed in 2021. Bringing people to reservations, Chehak said, can drive economic opportunities when visitors stay at hotels, eat at restaurants and buy from shops. The project isn’t promoting casinos unless those gaming facilities include a cultural aspect, such as art exhibits or tribal architecture.

Gail Chehak, tribal relations and outreach manager, American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Association (AIANTA). Courtesy photo

“We started at the end of the trail and are working our way backwards,” Chehak said. “We started our in-person interviews, going eastward visiting as many of the tribes as possible.

“We want to know — where are your lands? Did Lewis and Clark travel through your ancestral territories? Where were your people at that time and where are you now? We want to talk about historical encounters, but also about where people can go visit, eat, or experience tribal culture along the trail.”

The interviews, while weaving in accounts of encounters documented by the exploration party, encourage tribes to share their views and showcase their current experiences and activities to visitors, said Monica Poling, AIANTA marketing and public relations manager. 

“We are mindful that marketing continues to be a challenge for many tribes, and we look forward to sharing marketing tips that will help them get connected to free resources to market themselves,” said Sherry Rupert, AIANTA executive director.

Since the 2003 bicentennial commemoration, many new Native American attractions, activities, restaurants, resorts, and events have opened to the public. AIANTA and its partners believe this new venture will promote today’s amenities and serve as another opportunity to be part of the historical narrative.

Traughber, Wildhorse Foundation’s administrator, said AIANTA’s involvement with NPS to promote the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail will “help broaden the historical context of the expedition by encouraging people to learn the tribal history that goes with it.” She hopes a renewed interest in the Lewis and Clark Trail will “inspire people to learn about the history of tribes from the perspective of the tribes rather than the biased history of white authors.”

Commemoration not celebration

The efforts of AIANTA and the NPS expand on what tribal leaders in the Circle of Tribal Advisors learned after organizing events for the bicentennial. Conner, director at the Umatilla Tamástslikt museum, was vice president of the Circle of Tribal Advisors and will be involved in this new venture as well. Her perspective hasn’t necessarily changed two decades later.

In an essay for the print edition of High Country News in August of 2004, Conner said that honoring Lewis and Clark as exemplars who “discovered” North America would be offensive to American Indians and anyone who has studied American history.

“For us, the idea of celebrating the harbingers of what would become genocide is offensive and shameful.” – Bobbie Conner

Many Native Americans, then and now, recognized Lewis and Clark as early North American colonizers and chose to call the 2003-2006 bicentennial a commemoration rather than a celebration.

Conner was quoted in a 2004 press release from the National Council for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial as saying, “Indian people are not celebrating the Bicentennial. For us, the idea of celebrating the harbingers of what would become genocide is offensive and shameful.”

Conner said the bicentennial and this new project could help Native Americans “reclaim our role in this history that so many Americans learned in third grade. This group of people traveling through the wilderness, well, those were our homelands. We were already there, watching them come and watching them go. Many times we could have ended the expedition, but we didn’t.” 

Among other things, Conner noted that rivers, lakes and mountains had Indigenous names before Lewis and Clark renamed them. (The Umatilla tribes have published a Native-place names book, “Caw Pawa Laakni – They Are Not Forgotten: Sahaptian Place Names Atlas of the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla.”) Conner said it’s an “admirable objective” of the AIANTA-NPS project to keep tribes in the front of the story.

“It’s not a dream come true, though,” Conner said. “If we want to help people find out who we are, we need to tell them what Lewis and Clark got wrong and got right.”


Lead photo: A sign marking the end of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail in Seaside, Oregon. Courtesy of Adobe Stock

About the author

Wil Phinney

Wil Phinney has been a reporter and editor for more than 40 years at newspapers in Oregon, Wyoming and Montana. He recently retired after 24 years as editor of the Confederated Umatilla Journal, the award-winning monthly newspaper on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in eastern Oregon. He lives in Pendleton, Oregon, with Carrie, his wife; they have three daughters.