Nothing makes you feel as though you’re penetrating the inner circle of Lewis and Clark scholarship more than to learn that the premier living Lewis and Clark scholar prefers to be called “Jim.”
This book is the earliest example of “new Western history” applied toward the Lewis and Clark expedition. First published in 1984, I consider it the piece in the Lewis and Clark cannon which permanently altered historiography on the topic, made it relevant once more and also had a great influence on the nature of the bicentennial commemorations. By casting Lewis and Clark in a preexisting world of nuanced trade networks and invisible and shifting boundaries of native nations, I believe it is a forerunner to books such as Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen, though not as complex and without the profound thesis.
I had the recent pleasure of speaking with Dr. Fred Hoxie, curator of the Newberry Library’s traveling exhibit “Lewis and Clark and the Indian Country.” Conducted for a review of the exhibit I’m writing for The Public Historian, the thorough interview with the professor who dares not to call himself an expert on Lewis and Clark was regrettably too long to include in my short review, but the man made many an interesting point.
Hoxie, who began his research for the exhibit with Ronda’s book, met with members of the tribes who had the greatest interaction with the Corps of Discovery once a month, every month for 2-3 years while planning this exhibit. (I wish I could say the NPS, who provided a research grant for the exhibit, used the same strategy when planning such exhibits, but that’s another matter for another day.) According to the good doctor, many of the tribes who met with Lewis and Clark in 1804-1806 trace their history with the United States back to Corps, the genesis being those first diplomatic meetings with the captains. Knowing that military-minded Clark felt it necessary to hold a full dress parade with the soldiers and Lewis almost always commenced initial meetings by demonstrating his very impressive airgun seems almost embarrassingly inconsiderate now and quintessential of communication breakdown and complete cultural misunderstanding that permeate almost all American Indian and Anglo American historical interactions. Nevertheless, as someone who seeks to connect Lewis and Clark always to the larger historical picture, my interview with Dr. Hoxie made me realize that there are still perspectives from the Lewis and Clark expedition that have yet to be explored and new histories to be written. Hoxie said that the non-celebratory exhibit which questioned the infallible status of the captains was controversial when he first began to plan it, something that is surprising to hear now but also reveals how accepted new Western history has become.
In regard to the future for Lewis and Clark, I think there is a wonderful economic history of the Corps and their Indian saviors that has yet to be written and Ronda’s book makes that clear. Unfortunately, that’s just not my bag, man.