Last night I finished reading “Undaunted Courage,” by Stephen E. Ambrose. This well-written book tells the story of Lewis & Clark’s history-bending trek between Pittsburgh and the mouth of the Columbia River. Lewis was but 30 years old when he embarked down the Ohio River to map, describe the flora and fauna and natives, and to establish a trading route to the Pacific Ocean. President Jefferson wrote, “The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri river, and such principal streams of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean… may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.” (http://www.peabody.harvard.edu/Lewis&Clark/introduction.html)
The massive injustices ultimately perpetrated upon the tribes that inhabited the land through which the explorers moved are hauntingly familiar. Back in 1804-5, the patronizing President considered the native Americans who populated the country to be his “red children”. In a speech to the Otos that was typical of the message Lewis & Clark carried everywhere they stopped, Lewis said, “Children, [the President] is now your only father; he is the only friend to whom you can now look for protection, or from whom you can ask favours, or receive good counciles (sic), and he will take care to serve you, and not deceive you.” Louis and Clark came bearing gifts of beads, medals with the President’s picture, and some clothing. The Teton Sioux dismissed the gifts as “some worthless medals and a silly hat.”
In fact, Jefferson had the naïve idea that in exchange for an infinite supply of blue beads the Indians would cede the rights to their land and its resources. From a modern web site in honor of Crazy Horse, Ohiyesa tells us, “Young Crazy Horse was twenty-one years old when all the Teton Sioux chiefs (the western or plains dwellers) met in council to determine upon their future policy toward the invader…. They reasoned that the country was wide, and that the white traders should be made welcome. Up to this time they had anticipated no conflict. They had permitted the Oregon Trail, but now to their astonishment forts were built and garrisoned in their territory.”
If you ignore the fact that the hapless beaver and other animals were driven to extinction in most of the West by the fur trade, a case has been made that the impacted villages were better off with white man’s medicines and other technology. This is a weak case, since along with the medicines came white man’s diseases. And Rush’s Pills (“Thunderclappers”), “a purgative of explosive power” comprised of mercury, chlorine and jalap, sounds like a remedy to avoid at any cost. Crazy Horse could have been speaking for today’s villages when he said, “We do not want your civilization! We would live as our fathers did, and their fathers before them.”
We are scarcely different today than we were in the time of President Jefferson and Lewis and Clark. The instinct to expand trade seems hard-wired into our psyche. But from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Burma, battles are underway to temper the urge to expand trade with care for the Earth and its people. These uphill battles often yield victories that help change societal expectations and eventually commercial behavior. Very recently, the Lakota Sioux were able to elicit an apology from a beer company that has been exploiting Crazy Horse to sell ale. This might seem a small victory, but it’s an important one.