Blackfeet Differ From Lewis & Clark
"Blackfeet recollections differ from those recorded in Lewis' journal"
By Eric Newhouse, Great Falls Tribune, April 23, 2003
The Blackfeet Nation certainly hasn't forgotten its encounter with Capt. Meriwether Lewis in the summer of 1806.
"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.
"But they wrote the history books saying we were brutal and warlike so they could justify what they did to us," he said.
According to Blackfeet oral histories, Kipp said, Lewis and his party ran into a group of young boys from the Skunk Band who were herding horses back to camp from a previous foray.
"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," said Kipp. "That's when they were killed."
A newspaper story dating back to 1919 recounts a Blackfeet version much more consistent with Lewis' journal.
In it, George Bird Grinnell, known as one of the fathers of Glacier National Park, recounted an interview he had conducted in 1895 with a Blackfeet chief called Wolf Calf, who was then 102 years old.
When Wolf Calf was 13 years old, said Grinnell, he was present at the fight scene. The Blackfeet met the white men in friendly fashion. The chief directed the young men to try to steal some of their things, according to Wolf Calf.
They did so early the next morning, and the white men killed the first Indian with their big knives, he said.
Wolf Calf then said one of the white men -- apparently their chief -- chased another Indian boy and shot him with a pistol, killing him.
The old chief located the fight scene as on the hill immediately south of Birch Creek, where the town of Robare then stood in Teton County.
"In reply to an inquiry as to any attempt to pursue Lewis' party, Wolf Calf declared that the Indians were badly frightened, that they were bitterly hostile to the whites after the incident and ashamed because they had not killed all the white men. He said, however, that their dread of the white men's guns was such that they hurried away north, while Lewis and his men fled south," according to the newspaper account.
Darrell Robes Kipp, director of the Piegan Institute in Browning, noted that one of the boys who was killed, Calf Looking, was 13.
"These were boys who were horse herders," he said. "They weren't warriors."
By comparison, he noted, Lewis and his party were warriors.
"By the amount of weaponry they carried, they must have looked like Rambo to a couple of young boys who had only bows and arrows."
The ultimate insult, said Darrell Kipp, was that Lewis deliberately left a peace medal around the neck of one of the dead Indian boys.
"Since they didn't understand what the medal meant, it would have seemed that Lewis was counting coup on them. It would have been viewed as a form of scalping," he said. The peace medal would not have been buried with Calf Looking, he added.
"That would have been considered taboo," said Darrell Kipp. "They would have thrown the medal away or destroyed it."
The result of that encounter, said Kipp, was that the Blackfeet closed their territory to all whites for the next 80 years, attacking and killing any intruders they could find within their borders.
Attitudes have mellowed since, though. "Our tribal government has decided to support the bicentennial," said spokesman George Heavy Runner. "It's like trying to kill one bird with two stones. "It will allow us to portray our culture, capture some of the tourism dollars and promote future tourism," he added.
As a result, the tribe sent a delegation to Monticello in January to attend the Signature Event opening the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. "We met a grandson of Captain Clark, shook his hand and said, 'We're still here, and we hope this encounter won't be as violent as the one 200 years ago" said Heavy Runner.
Already in Browning is the Museum of the Plains Indians, which interprets the Native American culture and lifestyle. But the tribe also is planning to take over the late Bob Scriver's art studio and gallery, which will be turned into a museum of the Blackfeet Nation.
Jay St. Goddard, tribal chairman, said the tribe plans to build an interpretive center, complete with a herd of buffalo, just west of Browning. "Lewis and Clark were the rise and fall of Indian country, but we're in a new world today," said St. Goddard. "We need to find a way to funnel their tourism dollars into our pockets of poverty."