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Lewis and Clark Woo Collaborators


Today’s story was written by Native American historian, Tracy Potter, who wrote the biography Sheheke: Mandan Indian Diplomat: The Story of White Coyote, Thomas Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark, which was released to great acclaim earlier this year. Potter is the Executive Directory of the Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation, which is responsible for administering the interpretation of the On-a-Slant Mandan Indian Village.

One hundred and ninety-eight years ago this week, the Lewis and Clark expedition was back in familiar and friendly territory. They were on their return trip from the Pacific to St. Louis and had stopped for a few days to renew acquaintances with their Mandan and Hidatsa friends at the Knife River Indian villages.

The two American captains had one remaining task to accomplish for President Thomas Jefferson. They needed to convince a Mandan or Hidatsa chief to accompany them back to Washington City.

One can imagine the skills required for a war chief. He could lead men in battle and successfully return with the horses or scalps of the enemy... and his own men’s scalps intact.

A civil chief was chosen for other attributes: compassion, generosity, and adherence to the traditions of his people. A civil chief had to be a good talker, since leadership could only be exercised through persuasion. It was natural for the civil chief to be the Nation’s leading diplomat.

While Sakakawea’s husband, Toussaint Charboneau, was assigned to gather Hidatsa leaders, Captain William Clark walked to Black Cat’s Mandan village for a conversation.

Black Cat acknowledged that he would like to travel to the United States to visit the American leader, but he was convinced that the trip would be fatal. He was afraid of the Sioux, “who were yet at war with them, and were on the river below, and would certainly kill him if he attempted to go down.” Clark’s assurances that the Corps of Discovery could protect its guests were of no avail.

Back in his own camp, Clark found Charbonneau had done his job, and the great Hidatsa leader Le Borgne, the One Eye, was waiting with several other chiefs. An invitation to Le Borgne was met with the same comments delivered by Black Cat: it would be too dangerous to try to pass the Sioux lower on the river.

Clark tried Black Cat again on the following day but got no farther. The chief said not only wouldn’t he go, but none of his people would be willing to, either. When a young man stepped forward and contradicted the chief by volunteering his services, Black Cat told Clark to decline, saying the young brave had questionable character.

Finally, good news arrived at Lewis and Clark’s camp. Little Crow, the war chief of Mitutanka was interested. He only needed to gain approval from his village council. The council meeting apparently came to a different conclusion. The war chief would stay, but the civil chief, Sheheke, the White Coyote, would be the Mandan ambassador to the United States.

So it was that on this date in 1806, Lewis and Clark, their intrepid party of explorers, and their new guests, Sheheke, his wife Yellow Corn, their son, White Painted House, and translator Rene Jessaume and his family all set out down the Missouri River... for a date with President Thomas Jefferson.

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm