When teaching students about Native Americans met by Lewis and Clark (or in any study of history), there are certain points that are important to include. First, students need to understand that the tribes encountered on the journey were not all alike. The Corps of Discovery met several different tribes as they moved up the Missouri River and across the Plains to the Pacific Ocean. Each tribe had its own unique characteristics mostly determined by the geographic environment in which they lived. While some tribes shared attributes or were allied, there were still differences in culture or language between them. In some instances, tribes were enemies of each other. The Plains Indians lifestyle was very different from that of the Pacific Northwestern tribes. Rather than identify the Native Americans met by Lewis and Clark as a group in itself, select some of the individual tribes and learn about their area of occupancy and way of life.
A second important issue is explaining the type of encounter Lewis and Clark experienced with the different tribes. Students should understand that in most instances, interactions between the two groups were peaceful. Only a few ended in violence. One important mission of the journey was diplomacy. The Americans were hopeful of making friends with the tribes in order to promote trade. President Jefferson sent friendship certificates and peace medals with Lewis and Clark to present to the tribes that did help. And indeed, many tribes as well as the young guide, Sacajawea, aided the expedition along the way.
Also of importance is helping students understand the impact of the expedition on the Native Americans encountered. A way to aide understanding is to have students consider the Native viewpoint of the situation. How might these American Indians have felt when a large, armed group of men entered their homelands, claiming the land was now a part of the United States of America? Why might some tribes have welcomed them while others were distrustful? Explore possible reasons for the different reactions based on where each tribe lived, previous interactions with Europeans, and tribal lifestyles.
A last point that is important for young students to understand is that many of the American Indian tribes met by Lewis and Clark still live in this same area of the United States today. Children need to recognize that American Indians do not exist only in the history of our country, but are a vibrant part of our country’s population today. They live modern lives in our cities and on tribal reservations.
I would pick areas like clothing, shelter, food, transportation, and the reactions to Lewis and Clark, and compare and contrast each native American group as Lewis and Clark met them. I would make a large grid and fill in the information as the class studies it. Try to get the students to make some generalizations on how the geography of the region affects each area.