Special Reports

Enemies or friends?

They knew the white men — soyapos, in their language — were coming long before they arrived. Three Nimiipuu leaders had met them the year before at Fort Mandan, in present-day North Dakota, and Nimiipuu songs had long predicted the arrival of a new kind of people.

One of the three leaders, Red Bear, wondered if the soyapos would remember him when they reached Nimiipuu country. The ax the white men had given them at Fort Mandan should help them remember. Strange markings — L and C — were stamped in its metal. It was waiting in Nimiipuu territory when the white men arrived there on Sept. 20, 1805.

Three small boys were the first to see them, seven thin men on gaunt horses coming out of the mountains onto what is now known as the Weippe Prairie in North Idaho. (An irony of Nimiipuu history was that one of the boys, Alle-oo-ya, would grow up to be a leader of the tribe, take a white name and become a central figure in a dispute that divides the Nimiipuu to this day.)

The soyapos' arrival in their country was so far outside most of the people's experience that they didn't know what to make of them. In a land where facial hair was all but unknown — Nimiipuu men plucked their whiskers — the white men's beards made them look as if their faces were upside down. Some of the newcomers had green, gray or blue eyes. To people whose eyes were universally brown, they resembled the eyes of fish. They wondered if the strangers were humans, animals or a mixture of both.

The strangers were dirty and smelled bad. This was highly offensive to the Nimiipuu, who prided themselves on cleanliness.

It was September, a time when their camps were well stocked with salmon and nutritious roots, yet these men were weak from hunger. They'd eaten some of their own horses, behavior all but alien to native people who prized horses. If they were human beings, how could they be in such deplorable condition at such a time of plenty?

The Nimiipuu called the newcomers miyapkawits — "know-nothings."

They initially felt sorry for them.

The white men rode to the camp where the boys lived. They noted in their journals that some members of the tribe pierced their noses. French trappers who came later made similar references, giving rise to what would become the white people's name for the tribe. Most Nimiipuu didn't and don't pierce their noses, meaning that the tribe has been misnamed ever since.

Most Nimiipuu people believed in treating guests well. They gave the hungry men roots and salmon, which they eagerly accepted. Accustomed to eating mostly meat, they gorged themselves and became ill. It was hard to believe that people who had come so far could seem so inept.

The soyapos created such a stir that on the next day many of the people followed them to the camp of Twisted Hair, the head man in the valley. Twisted Hair was fishing for salmon. He warmed to the strange-looking men and showed them the Nimiipuu way of spearing fish. They gave him a medal with a likeness of a man named Thomas Jefferson, their great white father who wanted all the tribes to live in peace. This was welcome news. Red Bear and his warriors had retaliated only four days before for the deaths of three Nimiipuu killed by the Shoshoni. There had been too much killing.

More soyapos came the following day. In all, there were 34 — 31 white men, an elderly Shoshoni guide, a Shoshoni woman, and her baby. It was the only time on the woman's journey with the white people that she aroused suspicion. Other tribes viewed the presence of a woman and child as reassuring. No war party would travel with a woman and a baby. The Nimiipuu, however, had a history of conflicts with the Shoshoni. The woman with the soyapos could be part of a Shoshoni trick. She would bear watching.

Her name, they were told, was Sacajawea. The group's leaders were called Lewis and Clark. Even the white people's names were strange.

Sacajawea had been stolen, sold and married to a Frenchman, but in time had returned to her people. Her story was similar to that of Watkuweis, an elderly Nimiipuu who as a girl had had an almost identical experience. When her French husband said he was taking her across the ocean to live with his people, she escaped. Her husband had been good to her, but she didn't want to leave her country. Alone but for her infant son, she made her way from the Great Lakes to her homeland. Her baby died on the difficult journey. Watkuweis, in the Nimiipuu language, means "one who has gone and returned."

Many of the Nimiipuu were uneasy about the newcomers and their strange ways. They ate dogs as well as horses. They were forever grabbing people's hands and shaking them. (The Nimiipuu, whose greeting was a hug, found this bewildering. They thought the newcomers were arrogantly trying to lead them by the hands, like children.) The white men took from the Earth without putting anything back. Lewis took plants with no intention of eating them or using them as medicine, and he left no offerings in their place. The soyapos thought nothing of violating rules that generations of Nimiipuu had followed for living in harmony with the Earth and the Creator.

Still, there was no denying that they possessed powerful weapons and knowledge. Potentially, they were a threat. Not a serious threat — a handful of men sick from overeating were no match for strong Nimiipuu warriors. But with many warriors away, the presence of 31 armed strangers was troubling. And if their mission was successful, others of their kind were likely to follow.

These whites seemed friendly. They brought gifts and spoke of the white father who wanted peace and would be their ally in a distant land called the United States. But there were no guarantees that those who followed them would be as friendly. Enemy tribes had made incursions onto Nimiipuu land. What was to stop white people from doing the same?

Some wanted to kill the newcomers. It would be quick and easy to do. While the tribe's strength was not what it once was — European diseases had spread like range fires across Native America — the Nimiipuu still numbered about 6,000 people. Even with many of their warriors away, there were more than enough to reduce the Corps of Discovery to a historical footnote. If Lewis and Clark failed to return from their journey, those who sent them would be hesitant to send others. A white incursion could be delayed indefinitely, perhaps avoided.

Those most in favor of killing the soldiers planned a way to do it. They would invite their guests to a feast. Armed warriors would pretend to be enjoying the festivities when in fact they had a signal to attack. When the last white man took the last bite of food, the warriors would strike in unison. Surprise and strength were on their side. It would be over in seconds.

Others thought it wiser to cultivate alliances with the soldiers. Convincing arguments could be made for staying on their good side. They had rifles and the black powder and balls the Nimiipuu needed for the muzzle-loaders they'd acquired through trade with the Mandans. Trade was changing the Indian world, and could rapidly change the balance of power. Not having ammunition for their rifles or not having enough rifles would put the tribe at a serious disadvantage.

The soldiers possessed wonders unlike any the Nimiipuu had seen. They had a direction finder that pointed their way in unfamiliar country. They had "long eyes" that made distant objects seem close. Perhaps most remarkable, they could make marks on paper to create silent communication. One man could make marks, and another would understand what he was saying just by looking at them. Messages created this way would last for generations and be understood by anyone who knew the magic that made them possible.

The Nimiipuu understood the value of the soyapos' knowledge and the practical benefits of allying themselves with them. Should they spare them and be their friends, or was it better to kill them to keep others from following?

The question was the talk of the camp when a warning came. Its source was Watkuweis. An elder with great status, she said the white people she had known had been kind to her and warned the warriors not to harm their brothers who claimed to have come in peace.

Whether it was Watkuweis' warning, the benefits of a possible alliance or a combination of the two that settled the matter is no longer known, but no move was made against Lewis and Clark or anyone in their party. Nimiipuu society was highly democratic. It's likely that there was a conference of the head men, with the majority opting to spare their lives and continue treating them as guests. Instead of relegating them to historical footnotes with a swift, bloody stroke, the Nimiipuu did all they could to assure their success.

They gave them food when they were on the edge of starvation. They supplied them with horses they needed. They told them the rivers that would take them to their objective of the continent's western coast, and they told them about the tribes they would encounter along the way. Innocent of their roles in history, Sacajawea's son, Pomp, played with the future Chief Timothy. (Many years later, Timothy named his daughter Jane after a woman he admired in his youth. Jane was Clark's name for Sacajawea.)

Twisted Hair and another chief agreed to accompany the soyapos on the first part of their journey to the coast, in dugout canoes the Nimiipuu taught them to make more efficiently by burning out the core of the log instead of chopping it.

By the time the canoes were ready and they paddled away, on Oct. 7, 1805, the Nimiipuu had a better opinion of them. True, they were continually sick, ignorant of things the tribe considered important and occasionally high-handed. But they held great power, could be friendly and generous, and despite their suffering possessed an unshakable determination to succeed, a quality the Nimiipuu admired. The basis for a friendship had been formed. A longer-term relationship was cemented when a deal was struck with Twisted Hair to care for their horses until they returned in the spring.

The sunny Nimiipuu country and its friendly inhabitants were a welcome sight to the explorers after spending a bone-chilling winter at rainy Fort Clatsop, on the Pacific Coast. They arrived approximately May 4, 1806, and spent five weeks with the Nimiipuu, the longest stay of the journey other than at their winter encampments. Their time at Long Camp, now Kamiah, may have been the two-year expedition's most pleasant interlude.

Lewis and Clark arranged a council to explain the purpose of their expedition to the war chiefs and other important men of the Nimiipuu nation: Red Bear, Broken Arm, Fierce Five Hearts, Cut Nose, Twisted Hair and others. The captains spoke through Sacajawea's French husband Charbonneau, who spoke to her in the Mandan language. She translated to her native Shoshoni, and a Shoshoni slave boy who spoke the Nimiipuu language translated for the chiefs.

The captains told the chiefs they were children of the great white father, who wanted all the tribes to live in peace. They told them the great white father was the leader of a nation whose people were wealthy, numerous as blades of grass and wanted only peace and trade with the Nimiipuu. Their intentions were honorable. They would never harm the Nimiipuu.

The chiefs had reservations about whether enemy tribes would honor an agreement to live peacefully. But if the captains could be believed, the great white father was a good man and an exceptional ally. That and what they had seen of his people's amazing weapons and technology convinced them to attempt to do as he wished. They would refrain from warring with their enemies. They would trade with the soyapos. They would try to live in peace with their former enemies and their new friends and protectors.

Good will imbued the camp with a festive atmosphere. Gifts were exchanged. The captains included their new friends in celebrating with alcoholic beverages. The men engaged in friendly rivalries. White soldiers joined Nimiipuu warriors in betting games, foot races, horse races, shooting arrows through hoops, pulling badgers from their holes and other diversions. In the evenings, there was dancing. The soyapos dined on the meat of horses they purchased or the Nimiipuu gave them.

Clark furthered the friendly relations by treating physical ailments. The friendly relations, however, went well beyond sport and medicine. The Nimiipuu viewed sex and marriage as ways of making alliances. Both Clark and his black slave York, according to Nimiipuu oral history, fathered children at Long Camp.

Clark's son by Red Bear's daughter had his father's red hair. His name was Daytime Smoker. As an old man, he would fight in what was called the Nez Perce War but was actually a flight from the great white father's soldiers.

Agreeable as their time at Long Camp was, Lewis and Clark were impatient to be home. The mountains that all but killed them the preceding fall were beckoning. The chiefs warned them there was still too much snow in the high country. If they tried to cross the mountains too soon, the snow would be too deep, the weather too cold. There would be no grass for their horses to eat. They would risk death again.

The warnings were dismissed — the old arrogance. The party left on June 10, encountered deep snows and numbing cold and had to turn back. It was the first time since leaving St. Louis two years earlier that they had been forced to retreat.

The Corps of Discovery succeeded in crossing the mountains in late June, within a few days of the time the Nimiipuu said it would be possible. Lewis and Clark returned to the United States and reported to President Thomas Jefferson, who would remain the great white father for two more years.

Jefferson rewarded Lewis with a governorship, a position for which he appeared to have been ill suited. Despondent and beset by bureaucratic and financial problems, he apparently took his own life three years after the expedition's conclusion.

Clark, who praised the Nimiipuu as the most friendly, honest and ingenious people he met on the expedition, spent the majority of his career in St. Louis as the highest ranking federal agent in charge of Indian affairs.

The Nimiipuu stayed home and waited to see what would happen as a result of the positive relationship forged with their new friends. They wondered how their lives would change, and how long it would take.

As it happened, it wasn't long at all.