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.”
Other accounts say the plans Lewis told the Indians about, providing weapons to tribes that agreed to peace with the United States, made the Blackfeet uneasy because Lewis said the Shoshone and Nez Perce—enemies of the Blackfeet—had already agreed.
Giving guns to their enemies was a threat, so in the morning, when the young Blackfoot men tried to steal Lewis’s horses and guns, they shot one of the Indians and stabbed another.
“By the amount of weaponry they [Lewis’s party] carried, they must have looked like Rambo to a couple of young boys who had only bows and arrows,” Darrell Robes Kipp, director of the Piegan Institute in Browning, Montana told the Great Falls Tribune. He also said that one of the boys killed was only 13 years old.
Darrell Kipp said Lewis further insulted the Blackfoot by putting 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.
Attitudes have eased about Lewis & Clark. The tribe even sent a delegation to the opening of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial in 2003.
“Lewis and Clark were the rise and fall of Indian country, but we’re in a new world today,” Jay St. Goddard, tribal chairman at the time, told the Great Falls Tribune. “We need to find a way to funnel their tourism dollars into our pockets of poverty.”