Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipu

Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce

By Luke Sprague

December 18, 2013

Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipu. By Allen V. Pinkham and Steven R. Evans. Washburn, ND: The Dakota Institute Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-9834059-8-6. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Glossary. Index. Pp. xviii, 277. $25.00.

Allen V. Pinkham and Steven R. Evans in Lewis and Clark Among the Nez Perce: Strangers in the Land of the Nimiipuu use thoughtful arrangement of Nez Perce and American history to achieve what I think no other author has effectively done—viewing Lewis and Clark from a Nez Perce perspective. Until revisionism began with McWhorter’s Yellow Wolf in 1940, American historians largely ignored the handful of written Nez Perce sources, but from that point forward, a small number of American historians used Nez Perce sources to try to create a voice for the Nez Perce historical narrative including McWhorter, Josephy, and Swayne. However, this book is different because of its Nez Perce voice and does so in a way that brings a Nez Perce perspective to readers in a direct fashion and without hyperbole. The book is a well-documented history that successfully walks the line between what is conjecture and what actually appears in both Nez Perce and American sources.

The opening Nez Perce narrative creates the historic context for this book by retelling important Nez Perce stories like Monster and Coyote. The book follows the course of the Lewis and Clark expedition as they pass thru Nez Perce territory downstream in 1805 and on the return trip upriver in 1806. Each chapter describes an almost mile-by-mile snapshot of the journey within Nez Perce territory. These chapters are short and appear deliberately structured that way, so that the reader may examine each event separately. The authors effectively contrast the Lewis and Clark journals with relevant Nez Perce experiences to arrive at a more informed historical narrative. Photographs of interviewed Nez Perce tribal members further reinforce the strength of these Nez Perce experiences passing from one generation to another.

Pinkham and Evans contribute to debate about the expedition by arguing that the Nez Perce and American alliance likely saved Lewis and Clark from failure. The authors point out that Nez Perce ensured American safety, not necessarily for altruistic reasons, but instead for Nez Perce interests in firearms, trade goods, perceived spiritual powers, and a potential military alliance. The Americans depended on Nez Perce for food, canoes, horses, maps, and political support in a large country unknown to them. The book captures the spirit of this formal alliance made between the two parties on 12 May 1806 and asserts that the Nez Perce-American alliance initially served both parties well. To buttress their argument, Pinkham and Evans indicate the critical role that chiefs Twisted Hair and Red Grizzly Bear played in directly supporting the expedition. The authors also go into detail as to how marriages between the two parties further strengthened this formal alliance.

I would recommend this book to any person who wants to learn more about the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Luke Sprague is a public historian at HistoryMint and manages the nominations to the National Register of Historical Places for Latah County, Idaho. To find about more about what he does during his working hours click here.