No respectable spiritual reflection on the Lewis and Clark expedition would be complete without some consideration of the Native Americans already living on this great land. The Corps of Discovery lived for many months among the Mandans, the Shoshones, the Chinooks, and the Clatsops. They had dangerous run-ins with the Teton (Lakota) Sioux and the Blackfeet. They met with the Minitaris, the Arikaras, and the Hidatsas. In many cases, they were the first white (European) Americans to encounter these people.
Sometimes the encounters were peaceful, and other times there was distrust and tension. One encounter with the Teton Sioux on the Missouri River escalated to rifles at the shoulder and a cannon pointed at the Sioux while the Indian warriors had all their bows drawn, ready to fire on the outnumbered invaders (the issue at stake was whiskey). But only once, in a brief skirmish with some young Blackfoot warriors, did it come to blows. In this battle, one Indian brave was critically wounded by a knife and another shot dead.
The Captains’ views on the American Indians probably reflected those of the young American government, and most of its people, at the time. They were referred to as savages and were not to be trusted. They didn’t have the education or the technology of the enlightened men of America and so were viewed with contempt and disdain. Lewis gave a speech to every tribe he met telling them that they had a “new father”, President Jefferson, and that they now owed their allegiance to him. If they played by the rules of their new landlords, they were told, no harm would come to them. In fact, great benefit would come because the white Americans would provide trade goods beyond their wildest dreams and give them a life of wealth and leisure.
The promises of the white men were realized in later years in the form of guns and alcoholism. Indigenous peoples were confined to reservations or slaughtered in battle. No matter how pure the motives of some American leaders may have been toward the Indians, nothing was going to stop the tide of progress on the frontier.
Although Lewis was specifically instructed by Jefferson to make careful observations of the natives, including their spiritual practices, he showed little actual interest in indigenous spirituality and recorded almost nothing about their spiritual beliefs and customs.
We know they were very ritualistic and had gods that were integrated with nature. By looking at modern tribes we might extend some of our knowledge of their ancestors. Nature worship is common, and often held up as the higher road over other religious systems that include people or gods that resemble people. Animals are often believed to have eternal souls and intelligence beyond what we understand. And many tribes revere their ancestors as omniscient, omnipotent gods that are now in a position to help them in divine ways.
The new Americans viewed these people, each created in God’s image, each loved dearly by Him, each offered the same salvation we have been offered through the death of Jesus, as savages, just a step above wild animals. They were to be manipulated and controlled to the white man’s advantage and, if necessary, removed from the equation. Sometimes the removal meant relocation. Other times it meant extirpation.
For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. John 3:16
While, in some ways, the Lewis and Clark expedition represents all that I love about this great country of ours, their dealings with the Indians who already inhabited the land leave a black mark that cannot be erased. What would North America, or the world for that matter, have looked like if the explorers had followed the Word of the God they claimed to be their guide in their westward expansion? How would things have turned out for the native tribes if they had been treated with respect and a sense of equality? What if we had come with the hearts of servants and brothers rather than masters and fathers?
The value of history is not so much in the academic knowledge of civilizations and deeds past, but in the stories they tell and the lessons they teach. While I do not believe that you and I are directly culpable for the situation created by our ancestors, we are undoubtedly responsible for learning from their past decisions and doing our part to rise above them and make things right where possible.
History forgotten will invariably become history repeated.
Questions for thought
What’s your ancestry? What wrongs did your ancestors suffer, or what wrongs were suffered by others under their thumbs?
What lessons can we find in the history of people like the native Americans? How can we avoid repeating the sins of our fathers?
How should our understanding of history impact our lives today?
Lord, you alone are the Great Father. You give life and you take life away. You gave birth to the many nations of people across the globe and you love each of them equally. Give us eyes to see all people as you see them. Teach us to set aside our biases and prejudices and love unconditionally, as you have loved us. And may we never lose the lessons you have taught us from history, that we may not repeat the sins of our ancestors. In Jesus’ name. Amen.