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Lewis and Clark: Wooing the Sioux

On their expedition, Lewis and Clark knew from their investigations in St. Louis that support and cooperation from the Sioux bands was vital to the success of American trade with the Missouri River tribes. Their first encounter with the famed Sioux would be with the Yankton tribe. But Lewis and Clark were eager, and apprehensive, to meet the Teton Sioux, the tribe of powerful warriors who regulated trade on the upper Missouri.

Lewis and Clark had heard a lot of stories from St. Louis fur traders about the Tetons' harassment of river traffic, demands for gifts and tariffs, downright theft of goods from vulnerable traders, and willingness to use force. The Tetons' reputation among the whites was terrible. They were militarily proud and powerful, and they controlled the flow of trade. Jefferson knew about the Teton Sioux and was interested in cementing trade relations with such a strong and successful potential ally. He had urged Lewis and Clark to be especially diplomatic and diligent in winning them over.

In his lifetime, Clark had met (and fought) more Indians than Lewis had and was more comfortable and less arrogant with them, enjoying their company and generally respecting their perspectives — albeit from his own eighteenth-century, ethno-centrist sense of superiority. One major exception was the Teton Sioux, however. Both Lewis and Clark failed miserably to establish rapport with the Tetons.

The encounters with the Yanktons and the Tetons couldn't have been more different. The encounter with the Yanktons was a social and diplomatic success. The negotiation with the Tetons was a diplomatic debacle that continues to affect the relationship between the U.S. government and the Sioux today.

Hitting it off with the Yanktons

Near the end of August, about a week after burying Sergeant Floyd, the only member of the Corps of Discovery to die on the expedition, the keelboat (flat-bottomed boat for carrying goods) and two pirogues (large canoes) had just passed the mouth of the James River and were into present-day South Dakota. An Indian boy who was on the riverbank jumped into the Missouri and swam out to one of the pirogues. Lewis and Clark put ashore and met two more boys — one of the three was Omaha, and the other two were Yankton Sioux. They told Lewis and Clark that located upriver on the James was a Yankton Sioux encampment. The Corps of Discovery had entered Sioux country.

Excited to meet a band of the legendary Sioux at last and happy for another chance to perfect their Indian diplomacy, Lewis and Clark dispatched Sergeant Nathaniel Pryor and Pierre Dorion, who lived with the Yanktons and spoke their language, to go with the youths to invite their leaders to meet with the explorers at Calumet Bluff camp.

The Yanktons received Pryor and Dorion with honor and enthusiasm. They even wanted to carry Pryor into their camp on a buffalo robe, a gesture of great honor, but Pryor declined — explaining that he only worked for the men who owned the big keelboat and all those trade goods. Nonetheless, the Yanktons cooked up a feast for the white men.

Exchanging ideas

On the morning of August 30, 1804, the Corps of Discovery put together all the same military hoopla that they had organized for the Otoes and Missouris.

Preceded by singers and drummers announcing their arrival, the Yankton leaders Weuche, White Crane, and Half Man regally entered the Calumet Bluff council site. They shook hands with Lewis and Clark and sat down to hear Lewis's Great White Father speech claiming ownership of the territory by the United States and promoting peace and trade. The Yanktons made speeches, too, expressing their desire for peace and need for trade. They promised to answer Lewis and Clark's request the next day.

That night around campfires, Yankton boys competed in bow-and-arrow contests, and the Americans gave beads as prizes to the winners. The Yankton warriors danced and bragged about their bravery and success in battle, while the explorers tossed them gifts of tobacco and knives. The two groups genuinely seemed to enjoy meeting one another, and a good time was had by all.

Getting down to business

The next morning, Weuche told Lewis and Clark that he needed arms to protect his destitute people and asked for immediate relief. He hoped to receive a supply from the keelboat's stock of guns. He also offered to organize peace efforts among the Plains tribes, but he kept returning to the trade goods Lewis and Clark were transporting up the Missouri.

Half Man's speech echoed Weuche's that peace would be good and that his band was poor and needed trade goods. But he also added a warning that "those nations above will not open their ears, and you cannot I fear open them." He was referring to the Teton Sioux.

The meeting ended with the Yankton's agreement to join the American trade alliance, a discharge of the air gun, tour of the keelboat and its wondrous instruments, and gifts of tobacco and corn. The two groups liked one another. Clark described the Yanktons as "Stout bold looking people" and admired an elite society of their warriors who never retreated in battle.

Confusing explorers with traders

Like the Oto and Missouri leaders, the Yanktons remained focused on the abundance of goods that the expedition carried. The Americans explained themselves as explorers and diplomats — advance men for future traders — but the Indians saw the loaded keelboat, concluded that the Americans were traders, and wanted to obtain as many of their goods as possible. They weren't even sure what explorers were. The only white men they had met were traders and trappers, so Lewis and Clark encountered this same misunderstanding with all the Missouri tribes.

The Yanktons, like all the tribes on the lower and middle Missouri, knew that their world was changing. The powerful Teton Sioux completely controlled trade through what is now South Dakota and North Dakota, intimidating Indian and non-Indian traders alike. The adolescent United States of America now "somehow" owned their homelands, so they had a new political balance to get used to.

The Yanktons were worried about their future and wanted to secure their role in whatever kind of trade system all these changes would produce.

Confronting the Tetons: at Bad River

In September, three weeks after their pleasant meetings with the Yanktons, Lewis and Clark entered the complex world of upper Missouri trade and the stretch of river controlled by the Brule band of Teton Sioux. The little Army flotilla had made its way halfway through what is now South Dakota. The mornings were getting chillier, and the ever-increasing wind was often in their faces. The river was also growing shallower, and the keelboat frequently got stuck on sandbars. On September 12, by late afternoon, the crew had progressed only one mile. The weather was drizzly and the "muskeetors [mosquitoes] verry troublesome," according to Clark.

On September 23, the men observed "a great Smoke" to the southwest — a signal that the Indians had discovered the Corps of Discovery. In fact, the Indians had been watching the Americans for a long time. Lewis and Clark put ashore and made camp. Before long three Teton Sioux youths swam the river to meet the Americans and reported that a camp of 80 Teton lodges was established at the next river, with 60 more lodges a little farther on. The youths had set a prairie fire to warn the Tetons of the boats' approach.

Lewis and Clark gave the boys some tobacco to take to their leaders with an invitation to meet the following day at the mouth of the Bad River — interestingly named considering what lay ahead — opposite present-day Pierre, South Dakota.

Misunderstanding the Tetons

What Jefferson, Lewis, and Clark didn't fully understand was that the Tetons were middlemen between European traders and the Arikara villages upriver. They exchanged European goods and furs for the Arikara's agricultural products (ensuring a dependable food supply for the Teton people). The Americans sought to open direct trade with all the tribes, including the Arikaras. Such an arrangement would negate the Tetons' role as broker, so the Tetons had turf, economic status, and food supply to protect. They didn't see much value, but plenty of threat, in America as a trade partner. So Lewis and Clark had a tricky negotiating job ahead of them.

Beyond all that, two of the three principal Teton leaders who would meet with Lewis and Clark — Black Buffalo and Tortohongar, known to white traders as The Partisan — were themselves engaged in an ongoing struggle for power and prestige within the Brule band of Tetons. Black Buffalo led the largest group of Brule and was a man who commanded much authority and respect. The Partisan was more unpredictable and challenged Black Buffalo whenever opportunity presented. Their one-upmanship was sometimes brutal and dangerous.

Stealing a horse, making a point

On September 24, 1804, Lewis and Clark prepared gifts for the Teton leaders: medals, flags, cloth, knives, American military coats, cocked hats, and tobacco. They also prepared their guns — just in case.

The explorers hadn't yet reached the mouth of the Bad River when Private John Colter, who was ashore hunting, shouted that some Tetons had stolen one of the expedition's horses. Five Tetons showed up on the river bank. Lewis and Clark anchored the boats in the middle of the river and told the Tetons that the horse was intended as a gift for their leader. If the five men understood what the Americans were saying, they didn't buy it and left. The meeting with the Tetons was already off to a precarious start.

The boats proceeded on to the Bad River and anchored opposite its mouth. Lewis went ashore on an island where the talks were to be held and shared a ceremonial pipe with some of the Teton leaders. The leaders gave back the horse.

Failing to communicate

On September 25, the customary mainsail-awning was erected and the U.S. flag raised. The Indians arrived — led by Black Buffalo, The Partisan, and Buffalo Medicine (the third Teton leader). Food gifts were exchanged and speeches begun. Then a staggering problem revealed itself. Neither side could understand the other's language.

The only member of the expedition who could speak the Brule Teton language was Pierre Dorion, the French fur trader who had accompanied the Corps to Yankton country. Lewis and Clark had left him there (where his Yankton wife and children lived) to try to make peace between the Yanktons and Omahas. What could they have been thinking? George Drouillard's sign language was inadequate and so was Pierre Cruzatte's command of Sioux. As a result, miscommunication and misunderstanding torpedoed the already complicated and delicate relations.

Trying to accomplish as much as they could without too many words, Lewis and Clark had their fully uniformed men march in parade as usual, and then gave Black Buffalo, to them the obvious headman, lavish gifts. Well, that slighted The Partisan and enflamed the two leaders' rivalry. All of the Tetons complained that their gifts were paltry. So Lewis fired up the air gun for entertainment. This distraction was to no avail — nobody was astonished, as they had been before. Then the Americans invited the Indians onboard the keelboat to show off its technological magic and to offer a few shots of whiskey. Not a great idea.

Hijacking the boat

The Partisan pretended to be drunk and got belligerent. Trying to defuse an increasingly touchy situation, Clark took the Tetons back ashore in one of the pirogues. But as soon as they landed, a few Indians grabbed the bowline as if to take over the boat. At that point The Partisan physically jostled Clark and said the boats could go no farther upriver. Another bad idea. Clark drew his sword. Lewis, onboard the keelboat, aimed the cannon. American soldiers leveled their guns, and Teton warriors strung their bows. Diplomatic disaster was just a trigger finger away.

Black Buffalo saved everybody's bacon — and probably a lot of innocent lives (many Teton women and children were at the gathering). He stepped between the angry men and grabbed the pirogue's bowline away from The Partisan's men. Then he retreated some distance to confer with the other Teton leaders.

A relieved Clark approached them and offered to shake hands. They refused. So he climbed into the pirogue and pushed off toward the keelboat. A minute later, Black Buffalo and a few of his men waded after Clark and asked to come aboard the keelboat. Clark warily agreed, and the whole grouchy bunch proceeded about a mile upriver and dropped anchor for the night near a small island, which Clark named "Bad humered Island" in honor of the day.

Dancing the night away

The next day, September 26, the Tetons decided to take a new approach. They invited the Americans to their village for dinner and a dance. The observant Sergeant Ordway described the village as "very handsome in a circle and about 100 cabbins in number and all white." Clark called the Teton homes "neatly formed, those lodges are about 15 to 20 feet Diametr Stretched on Poles like a sugar Loaf, made of Buffalow Skins Dressed." They were tepees.

The Tetons carried Lewis and Clark into the main village lodge on buffalo robes. The Americans were seated next to Black Buffalo and a circle of about 70 elders and warriors. A space was cleared in the middle of the circle where ceremonial pipes, the flag of Spain, and the new U.S. flag, which the Americans had given as a gift the day before, were placed.

A Teton elder spoke, and then Black Buffalo. The Americans couldn't really understand what the two Indians were saying but recorded later that they "Spoke approveing what we had done." Black Buffalo lit and passed around the ceremonial pipe. Teton women brought on the food — roasted dog and buffalo, pemmican (buffalo jerky), and potatoes. Drummers, singers, and dancers performed. The Tetons were holding several Omaha Indians prisoner after a raid, and Clark asked that they be freed in pursuit of peace between the Tetons and Omahas. But Black Buffalo wasn't interested in extending the night's magnanimity that far.

As the evening's festivities wound down and Lewis and Clark were leaving for their boats, the Tetons offered a few young women to accompany them for the night, but Lewis and Clark refused them (even though Clark had earlier described the Teton women as "chearfull fine lookg womin . . ."). The offer was an honor from the Tetons; refusing them was an insult from Lewis and Clark, who appeared to have understood the custom. Another self-inflicted blow to their own diplomacy. Even so, the evening's fun seemed to cheer everyone and defuse some of the previous day's tension.

Misunderstanding, again

Lewis and Clark spent September 27 visiting in the Teton village, and the evening brought another round of eating and dancing. Afterward, The Partisan and one of his men accompanied the Americans in the pirogue to spend the night on the keelboat. In the dark, the pirogue ran into the bigger boat's anchor line and broke it. The resulting shouting and scramble to save the boats somehow caused the Tetons to think they were being attacked by Omahas (in retaliation for the earlier raid).

In the village, Black Buffalo called out the troops, and 200 armed Teton men lined the shore. This show of force in turn alarmed Lewis and Clark, who thought the Tetons meant to attack and rob them. They posted extra guards that night, and neither Tetons nor Americans got any sleep.

Fearing the worst, again

On September 28, Lewis and Clark were more than ready to leave the Teton Sioux behind and proceed on toward the Arikara villages where they hoped for a fresh diplomatic start. However, the Teton leaders urged them to stay, and many villagers turned up onshore. As the Corps of Discovery was about to set sail, The Partisan's men grabbed the anchor line. Fearing the worst, Lewis and Clark asked Black Buffalo to intercede, but Black Buffalo said the men only wanted tobacco. By now Lewis had had enough and refused: bad move.

The Americans and Tetons grappled over the line. The Indians demanded more gifts. Clark readied the swivel gun. Once again, violence seemed the only recourse for both sides. Finally, Lewis threw some tobacco at the Tetons, and Black Buffalo yanked the anchor line free, releasing the boat to get underway. For the second time, Black Buffalo's cool head calmed a dangerous situation and avoided bloodshed.

Taking a second look at history

For four days, the Americans and the Brule Tetons had misunderstood one another, tested each other, danced and feasted and laughed, lost their tempers, and barely avoided violence. For 200 years since then, American historians have labeled the Tetons as bullies and Lewis and Clark as courageous heroes who backed the savages down. In truth, the whole mess was an utter failure to communicate. It was a failure of Lewis's and Clark's diplomacy, ability to grasp the balance of trade on the upper Missouri, and tolerance for the swagger of other proud men. At the end of it all, only the wisdom and superior diplomatic skills of Black Buffalo averted bloodshed.

A few months later, a still-angry Clark would write of the extraordinary Teton Sioux, "These are the vilest miscreants of the savage race, and must ever remain the pirates of the Missouri, until such measures are pursued, by our government, as will make them feel a dependence on its will for their supply of merchandise." His vindictive suggestion prejudiced American policy toward the Sioux to this day.

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