Frederick Hoxie

Frederick Hoxie is professor of history at the University of Illinois and the author of numerous books on Native Americans. This interview was conducted in 2003.
Frederick Hoxie

How would you assess the importance of Lewis & Clark?
What’s really important about Lewis and Clark is that they were beginning to establish American power in the west. This whole region was really an Indian country in 1805. Indians controlled it. European powers recognized that the Indians controlled it. On maps it said this was part of the United States of America, but in fact it was an Indian country. Lewis and Clark were really here to begin asserting American control over this territory.

The reality of this country is that it was controlled by Indian people. Lewis and Clark had big ideas when they left, had flags to hand out…but they learned early on that they were going to have to trade with Indians and talk with Indians to find their way west. They could not order Indians to do anything for them.

One of the problems with remembering the Bi-centennial and remembering Lewis and Clark is how tight a lens are we going to have? Looking only at Lewis and Clark, it’s a story of a small group getting to the Pacific. We need to open the lens. Then we see them traveling – not through a wilderness but through another country – and interacting with other people and the reverberating impact of that.

That larger, more complex history is really what we are experiencing today, and what we need to remember.

canoe travelHow important was Indian assistance to the Expedition?
Without Indian assistance they would have died. It is not an overstatement to say that they simply would not have made it without Indian guidance and food.

How were the Indians treated by the Expedition?
In the Indian country that Lewis and Clark entered, there were Indian protocols, values, of friendship and alliance. They expected in return for their generosity that Americans would be loyal to them.

But something happened to the Americans when they got to the Pacific. Things changed there. They suddenly knew the way and they thought they didn’t need the Indians any longer.

There’s a very tiny event that happens when they get to the Pacific. They start to come back, and they need a canoe. The Indians won’t sell them a canoe, and so they stole it. That violated all the values of the Indian country and the promises they had made to the Indians. It marked the direction they were going to go on their way back.

Lewis and Clark had an opportunity to forge a permanent alliance, but they didn’t do that. They stole the canoe. The United States continued to launch its imperial project in this part of the country.

Lewis and Clark were also men of the revolutionary generation. People who were part of what Jefferson called the Empire of Liberty. For the revolutionary generation, democracy did not include American Indians. Even the Declaration of Independence has one of its charges against the King – that he unloosed the savages upon the colonies. These were people who defined Indians out of the Democracy. By definition it was going to be a nation that did not include Indians.

Looking back, we can see many of the opportunities Lewis and Clark took advantage of – the friendship of the Indians – but they didn’t work together to become partners. That’s something we can do today. Indians and non-Indians becoming partners in the commemoration. Remembering together.


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