Saturday, December 31, 2011


"Manitou on a rock," Clark's journal, June 5, 1804.
The Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery traversed regions of the continent that are now known to possess considerable amounts of Native American rock art. Among the instructions that Lewis and Clark had received from President Thomas Jefferson in June 1803 for their exploratory expedition was to gather information on the native peoples that they met along the way. They were to gather information on a number of points of native life and customs. President Thomas Jefferson had taken great pains to contact all available scholars and savants in the United States asking them to suggest things that such an expedition should try to ascertain.

Jefferson had delivered in January 1803 a confidential message to Congress that justified the expedition on the grounds of expanding trade with the Indians. Jefferson had also solicited suggestions from scientist and knowledgeable government officials for the types of information that should be sought. He could synthesize the resulting suggestions into a final draft of instructions for the expedition. Jefferson’s instructions concerning Native Americans covered everything from language and law to trade and technology. The explorers were to record Indian foods, what the Indians wore, their technology and handcrafts, and what they believed in. Jefferson told Lewis: “You will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted as far as diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with the names of the nations and their numbers”. The captains understood that they were to do more than count natives and list languages. From the beginning of the corps of discovery virtually every diarist in it diligently recorded all sorts of information about Indian life.

 "Manitou, buffalo, and Indian." Clark's journal, June 7, 1804.

We must remember however that Lewis and Clark were very much men of their times and that they were imbued with the belief that the culture they represented was much higher and more enlightened that the cultures of the native tribes. As avocational natural historians they certainly would have agreed with modern science’s need for accuracy, but would not have understood any need for impartiality.
Their questions and observations of Native Americans predominately were intended to gather information about the economic and military strength and potential of each tribe. Can they provide raw materials for our industry, can they provide a market for our merchants and traders, are we likely to become embroiled militarily in inter tribal squabbles? Such information goals would only distantly be affected by information on the arts of Native Americans. Therefore their journals contain few references to the arts of these peoples. Likewise, there were few examples of what we would call the visual arts in the items that they collected to send back to Jefferson. One such item was a buffalo robe that they sent back after the winter of 1805, at Fort Mandan. On a large buffalo skin a Mandan artist had portrayed in vivid detail a 1797 battle between Arikara-Sioux raiders and Mandan-Hidatsa warriors. Significantly, this piece of art was most likely included not for its artistic interest but for whatever intelligence could be gained from it concerning the military power of Indian tribes.

Petroglyph, Indian Cave State Park, Nebraska.

One petroglyph that they probably saw because it is right on their path is an engraved quadruped found at Indian Cave State Park, Nebraska. William Clark also recorded in his journal a few examples of rock art that the party of exploration observed (see illustrations above). He drew rough copies in the journals of a number of these. While not the earliest known records of North American rock art, they are very early and display a significant interest in the cultures of the Native Americans they encountered. Clark labeled these images as manitoux, illustrating his assumption that they were religious images.

Tsagaglalal (she who watches), The Dalles, Washington. Photo Peter Faris, 2000.

Interestingly, their eventual route down the Columbia river led past the site of the magnificent petroglyph now named Tsagaglalal (She Who Watches) but there is no hint in their records that they actually saw it. They visited a village of the Wishram people which was named Nixluidix by its residents. The Wishram were one of the Upper Chinook people and prospered in their location on trade, specifically in large quantities of dried salmon. Tsagaglalal was apparently near the site of Nixluidix and was one or two hundred feet above the river on the flat. With its location above and back from the original river bottom Lewis and Clark apparently passed within a few hundred yards of it on both their westward journey and their return trip, although they recorded in detail their visit to the Indian village at that site.

Wm. Clark's inscription. Pompey's Pillar,
Billings, MT. Photo Peter Faris, 2009.

One inscription that was created by the expedition is William Clark’s signature with the date July 25, 1806, inscribed on the rock pinnacle known as Pompey’s Pillar, just a little east of Billings, Montana.

On the whole it is not surprising that Lewis and Clark did not record more information about the Native American rock art that they passed on the way. Given the cultural biases of the time, and their mission from Thomas Jefferson, recording all rock art was just not generally thought worthwhile. We do have to wonder what other things we could have learned about Native American art had attitudes been different.

No comments:

Post a Comment