Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage captures one perfect moment that we really should use in all of our classes to capture the true tragedy of the story of the Indians in America. He describes how one of the worst times for Lewis and Clark and their men came in the fall of 1805 when they became very ill. They had been living on a diet of meat that they killed in great quantity. But as they hit the Rockies, they no longer had game to kill and needed to switch to roots and fish that they purchased from the Nez Perce. Whether due to the sudden change in diet, or bacteria on the fish, they became ill. Then they tried to cure themselves using the medicines they had brought – almost all of them extremely powerful emetics and laxatives. So to add to their existing weakness and gastrointestinal problems, they radically weakened themselves. The men were helpless.
At this point it would have been very easy for the Indians to have killed them, or merely stolen their goods — at least all of their guns. And the Nez Perce themselves did not have guns, which put them at a great disadvantage compared to the Blackfoot who did — and thus dominated the buffalo hunts. Lewis promised guns to the Nez Perce in the future if they were "friendly" to the new United States. But the guns were there for the taking. And while in the long light of history, eventually a new group of visitors from the east would have arrived, and might even have taken vengeance against the Nez Perce, the whole process of Westward movement might well have been delayed.
And that leads to the tragic moment — because, as Ambrose points out, 72 years later, the US Army would evict the same Nez Perce from their lands, including some indviduals who, as young children, had seen the Lewis and Clark party at their greatest moment of weakness. For saving, or not harming, the explorers, they got nothing, only loss. This is tragedy not treachery because the 1877 outcome was going to happen eventually. There is no way to imagine a history that would have been different. But we can still look at this moment, and see the losses in our own national story. That is a history in which we look clearly at tragedy and are sobered by it.