I am reading through James Ronda’s Lewis and Clark Among the Indians (first published in 1984) and was reminded of how we saw ourselves politically in the early days of the Republic. This was well before the War to restore the Union and the Gettysburg Address, before the consolidation of power that comes with mass industrialism, and before the United States took a singular verb.
Part of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s task was to encourage (and threaten) the various Indian tribes they met in this newly acquired American territory to turn away from their existing sources of trade goods and look to sources based out of St. Louis. After the politeness of a lot of pipe smoking and the distribution of gifts, the Americans typically made a speech. They pressed for peace and told the tribes along the Missouri that their Spanish and French fathers were gone, and that these old fathers were to be replaced with a new father, “the great chief of the seventeen nations.”
Imagine thinking of Mr. Obama or Mr. Bush as “the great chief of fifty nations.” One can’t. But at Fort Mandan, one could.