Bookmonger: New book reveals intricate relationship between the Nez Perce and Lewis and Clark

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 26, 2014 

It has been more than 200 years since Thomas Jefferson's Corps of Discovery undertook their journey from the western fringes of what was then the United States, across the vast plains acquired in the Louisiana Purchase, over the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.

As schoolchildren in America's classrooms, we've all learned about Sacajawea, the young Indian woman who accompanied the expedition and served as a translator, and we've heard mention of some of the tribes that provided aid to the explorers along the way.

But a new book, "Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce," gives a much more fleshed-out account of the Native Americans who first encountered expedition members as they stumbled out of the Rocky Mountains, exhausted and depleted of food.

Amongst themselves, the Nez Perce, who called themselves Nimiipuu, debated whether to help the interlopers or to kill them.

Authors Allen V. Pinkham and Steven R. Evans illuminate that decision, and the many other exchanges that followed, by probing the rich oral traditions of the Nez Perce, including transcriptions of old interviews with individuals who had been children when Lewis & Clark came through.

Holding those recollections up to accounts written by the explorers, the authors scrutinize the mix of apprehension, miscommunication, and occasional delight as these wary initial exchanges ultimately forged ties between two very different cultures.

The Nez Perce, for example, were repulsed by the white men's willingness to kill dogs and eat their meat. On the other hand, expedition members could not always hold down the indigenous food proffered by their local hosts.

Nez Perce expectations of sharing were misconstrued by the whites as a cultural inclination for pilfering. On the other hand, when one of the white men spurned a native woman's offer of small gifts during a spiritual ceremony, the Nez Perce considered this to be evidence of terrible manners.

Accustomed to their own societal norms, expedition members were scarcely aware of the Nez Perce's intricate scaffolding of power. According to ability, different chiefs emerged to lead their people in different tasks - warfare, diplomacy, food gathering, medicine and so on.

Furthermore, the whites were blind as to the high positions held by women within some villages and bands. "Lewis and Clark did not anticipate female leadership among the Indians they met and did not recognize it when they witnessed it," the authors assert.

Despite these miscues, the Corpsmen and the Nez Perce persisted in finding ways to communicate, trade and share expertise.

"Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce" is the result of a decade-long collaboration between Pinkham and Evans. Pinkham is a Nez Perce tribal elder/author/educator who has served on the board for the National Museum of the American Indian. Evans is a retired history professor from Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston. Their remarkable research and scholarship has produced a richly detailed native perspective that adds authenticity and emotional weight to a national narrative that perhaps many of us had taken for granted.

GET THE BOOK

"Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce"

Allen V. Pinkham and Steven R. Evans

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com.

Bellingham Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service