July 27, 2013

Review of A Blackfeet Encounter

I watched the documentary A Blackfeet Encounter a couple of years ago. It tells the story of this encounter:

Jul 27, 1806: Meriwether Lewis shoots Blackfoot IndianAttempting to stop a band of young Blackfoot Indians from stealing his horses, Meriwether Lewis shoots an Indian in the stomach.

The voyage of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the West began in May 1804 when the two captains and 27 men headed up the Missouri River. They reached the Pacific Ocean the following year, and on March 23, 1806, began the return journey. After crossing the worst section of the Rocky Mountains, the expedition split up. Clark took most of the men and explored the Yellowstone River country to the south. Lewis, with nine men, headed west to the Great Falls of the Missouri River where he split the small party still further. Six men remained behind to make the portage around the Great Falls. Lewis took the remaining three and headed north to explore the Marias River country of present-day northwestern Montana.

It was a risky, perhaps even irresponsible, decision. Lewis knew the Marias River country was the home of the Blackfoot Indians, one of the fiercest tribes of the Great Plains. Lewis hoped he could meet peacefully with the Blackfoot and encourage their cooperation with the United States. Yet, if they met a hostile Blackfoot band and a fight began, the four explorers would be badly outnumbered.

On July 26, Lewis encountered a party of eight young Blackfoot braves. At first, the meeting went well, and the Indians seemed pleased with Lewis' gifts of a medal, flag, and handkerchief. Lulled into a false sense of security, Lewis invited the Indians to camp with them. In the early morning of this day in 1806, Lewis awoke to the shouts of one his men--the Indians were attempting to steal their rifles and horses.

Lewis sped after two Indians who were running off with several of the horses, calling out for them to stop or he would shoot. One Indian, armed with an old British musket, turned toward Lewis. Apparently fearing that the Indian was about to shoot, Lewis fired first and hit him in the stomach. The Indians retreated, and the men quickly gathered their horses. Lewis then learned that one of his men had also fatally stabbed another of the Blackfoot.

Fearing the survivors would soon return with reinforcements, Lewis and his men immediately broke camp. They rode south quickly and managed to escape any retribution from the Blackfoot. Lewis' diplomatic mission, however, had turned into a debacle. By killing at least one Indian, and probably two, Lewis had guaranteed that the already hostile Blackfoot would be unlikely to deal peacefully with Americans in the future.
Background on the conflict

Blackfeet IndiansFifty years before Lewis and Clark, the Blackfeet Indians had a reputation of being hospitable to Europeans, who occasionally even wintered with the tribe. By 1806, however, the world inhabited by the Blackfeet in present-day northern Montana had grown increasingly complex.

The Blackfeet were regular commerce partners with Canadian-based British merchants, and in their frequent visits to trading posts, the Indians exchanged wolf and beaver pelts for guns, ammunition and alcohol. This relationship had lasted more than 20 years, and during that time, the Blackfeet–armed with guns–had been able to dominate their Nez Perce and Shoshone rivals.

Eight Blackfeet warriors encountered Meriwether Lewis and a party of the Corps of Discovery in July 1806. After their initial fears of the armed strangers had subsided, the Indians decided to camp with the Americans. During this first day and night, Lewis explained the United States’ intent to bring about a comprehensive peace between all the Indian tribes of the west. He went on to add that the Shoshones and Nez Perces–mortal enemies of the Blackfeet–had already agreed to this peace, and would be receiving guns and supplies because of it.

To the Blackfeet, American plans represented a direct threat. As far as the Indians were concerned, giving guns to their adversaries only could result in a weakening of Blackfeet power. That night, the Blackfeet attempted to steal the expedition’s guns. Their plans went awry, and in the chaos that ensued, Lewis and Reuben Field each killed a Blackfeet warrior. The incident marked the first act of bloodshed between the western Indians and representatives of the United States.

The surviving Blackfeet returned to their tribe, and communicated what they had learned of America’s goals for the region. From that point forward, the Blackfeet regarded the Americans with hostility, and acted toward them similarly. Ironically, in the years that followed, Blackfeet war parties would be responsible for the deaths of three former members of the Corps of Discovery.

Warriors or boys?

A recent article spins the story a little differently:

Untelling the Big Lie: The Murder of Two Blackfeet by Lewis & Clark PartyAccounts of what happened leading up to the shooting vary depending on who you ask, but the result was the same. When Captain Meriwether Lewis shot a Blackfoot Indian on July 27, 1806, and one of his group killed another, the Blackfeet didn’t trust whites anymore.

In fact, the Blackfeet closed off their territory to whites for the next 80 years.

“Lewis and Clark came from a culture based on war and encountered a very peaceful people,” tribal elder G.G. Kipp told the Blackfeet Community College Native American Scholars Program, according to a story that appeared in the Great Falls Tribune in 2003. “But they wrote the history books saying we were brutal and warlike so they could justify what they did to us.”

Kipp is right, most accounts you find of the story of Lewis shooting a Blackfoot Indian paint Lewis & Clark as intrepid explorers and the Blackfoot as fierce and hostile. History.com even calls Lewis’s decision to explore Marias River country, the home of the Blackfoot Indians at the time, a “risky, perhaps even irresponsible decision.”

Lewis and his party of three explorers encountered a group of eight young Blackfoot on July 26 and at first, the meeting went well. Lewis was hoping he could convince the Blackfoot to cooperate with the United States. Here is one place the accounts differ. Most places say the eight Blackfoot were “braves” or “warriors,” but Blackfeet oral histories say they were young boys from the Skunk Band.

“They stayed with them and gambled with them,” he said. “There is a story of a race. In the morning, they went to part company and the Indians took what they had won.

“That was it,” Kipp told the Great Falls Tribune. “That’s when they were killed.”
Here's the source for Kipp's comments:

"Blackfeet recollections differ from those recorded in Lewis' journal"

My thoughts

As I recall, the documentary portrays the Blackfeet as teenagers or young men. They were basically gallivanting about, as young men are wont to do.

I don't recall mention of gambling or a race. I think the Indians merely wanted the guns. I don't know if they would've acted if Lewis hadn't talked about ending the Blackfeet's advantage by giving everyone guns.

When the Indians fled, I believe one took a shot at Lewis that whizzed by his ear. Lewis fired back and killed him.

Interesting to think what would've happened if the Indian had killed Lewis. Without Lewis's leadership, the expedition might've failed. If the expedition didn't report back, the US might've left the Indians alone for another decade or two. That might've given them enough time to build up their defenses to resist encroachment.

Anyway, A Blackfeet Encounter does a fine job of recreating the incident and putting it in context. The documentary is split roughly into four parts: America's history leading up to Lewis and Clark, the expedition and the incident, the eventual defeat of the Indians, and the Blackfeet's survival as a modern-day people. You couldn't ask for more.

You can watch the whole documentary here:

A Blackfeet Encounter

Comment:  For more on Lewis and Clark, see Manifest Destiny Comic Book and Jefferson's Indian Removal Policy.

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