Reliving Lewis and Clark: Conflicts With the Sioux

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Lewis and Clark lost a man, their only loss on the entire trip, but not to an Indian arrow or bullet. Sergeant loyd died of what most experts believe was appendicitis. They buried him on a bluff above the river that still bears the name Sergeant Bluff.

They almost lost another man when George Shannon, went off hunting for the horses, which had wandered off. After three weeks they found him nearly starved. He was living on wild grapes. He had run out of ammunition and shot a rabbit using a hard stick for a bullet. Shannon was the youngest member of the expedition.

Otherwise, the most notable events were the discoveries they were beginning to make of new species. On September 3 they saw the first of the "wild goats" that are still abundant on the high plains. These were pronghorns, the small, amazingly swift creatures that are neither goat nor antelope, but their own genera: pronghorns.

The same week they saw their first prairie dogs when they came upon a "town" of these squirrel-like animals that covered four acres (1.6 hectares). Fascinated, they stopped to see if they could capture one alive, first digging into the earth to locate their burrows (at 6 feet—1.8 meters—they gave up), then pouring water into their ground holes to try to force them to the surface.

Lewis's descriptions of the prairie dogs were the first scientific accounts of them ever made. That winter Lewis sent a live prairie dog back to Thomas Jefferson. It survived the trip.

On September 10 they found, embedded in the bank of the Missouri, the fossilized backbone of what Clark called, for want of a better name, a "fish." It was 45 feet (13.7 meters) long. It was no fish, but the backbone of a plesiosaur, a kind of aquatic dinosaur.

The Indian tribes were more interesting than the new species, of course. When Lewis and Clark met the Yankton Sioux on August 29, the two men of the expedition who crossed the river to greet the Indians were treated to a meal of cooked dog, a delicacy to the Indians, which the crew members found "good and well-flavored."

The next day Clark took a small vocabulary of the Sioux language. His notebooks are full of attempts to spell the word "Sioux," which is actually the French word for these people (they called themselves Dakotas or Lakotas). Clark's spellings are creative, to say the least: "seouex," "souix," "soux," "sceiouex," "souex," "sciuex"—all different, none correct.

He goes on to describe a warrior society: "brave active young men who take a vow never to give back [i.e., retreat] let the danger be what it may. In war they always go forward without screening themselves behind trees or anything else."

It was all friendly. When Lewis and Clark met them, the tribal chiefs would listen to speeches, give speeches of their own, accept the peace medals, promise to make peace, and in some cases agree to make the long trip to Washington, D.C. to meet the "great white father," Thomas Jefferson.

Then suddenly it was not friendly. The Teton Sioux had every intention of doing to Lewis and Clark what Alex White Plume intended to do to the reenactors—turn them around and send them home.

The expedition first encountered them on September 24, 1804, when they stole the horse that John Colter was riding alongside the Missouri. The next morning the Teton chiefs came to confer with Lewis and Clark. Lewis gave a speech, but they had no interpreter and it had to be curtailed.

They gave the chiefs whiskey, and one of them, pretending to be drunk, said he would not let them go on. Lewis and Clark had not given them enough presents.

The Native Americans seized the boats' cables. Clark drew his sword and Lewis ordered the men to arm themselves. The American Indians pulled arrows out of their quivers and strung them on their bows. It was a moment of high tension, and then the Sioux let go of the boats and went back to their camp.

The next day a temporary peace prevailed, and the Sioux entertained the captains at their camp. But it was only temporary. When the expedition tried to leave on the third day, the Sioux once again tried to stop them.

The Teton Sioux controlled all trade on the Missouri, and they were not about to let the Americans establish a foothold upriver from them. Arguments and threats once again came into play. Armed Sioux once again lined the riverbank. Not until the 29th of September did Lewis and Clark finally get past the Sioux encampments.

On the 21st of this year the reenactors similarly moved past the Lakotas who had threatened to attack, hauling their boats around Big Bend Dam. A police escort accompanied them. Alex White Plume decided not to interfere. But he said that he might consider doing something in the future.

"We are," Scott Mandrell had said on August 2, when the reenactors first arrived in Indian country, "a simple and sincere group of citizens with no agenda regarding Native Americans, other than that of helping to give them voice and extending the hand of peace and friendship."

He could not know that reliving the journey of Lewis and Clark would also mean reliving the conflicts with the Sioux.

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