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Fateful Meeting 

by Dale Roloff & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & E & lt;/span & ven though the Lewis and Clark expedition never got any closer to the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene area than about 100 miles, reaching the northernmost reaches of the Snake River in what is now Whitman County, that doesn't mean that the Corps of Discovery had no close encounter with the people living here then. In what was undoubtedly the first contact between the two cultures from opposite sides of the continent, there's plenty of evidence to show that members of what we call the Coeur d'Alene Nation met with the explorers in a camp along Idaho's Clearwater River, near Lenore, Idaho, on May 6, 1806.


Besides the leaders' journals and numerous oral histories of the Indian tribes they met, the Corps of Discovery left just one physical trace of their journey. On their return trip, Capt. Clark carved his name and date into a sandstone on the banks of the Yellowstone River not far from Billings, Mont., and called it Pompy's Tower in honor of Sacajawea's young son.


Just a few months before this graffiti incident, the Lewis and Clark journals and the oral traditions of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe detail their encounter. Coeur d'Alene tribal historian Cliff Sijohn says the news of the expedition had traveled far and wide to many parts of Indian country well beyond the actual travel routes, and there was some apprehension about meeting these strangers. Despite their misgivings, curiosity about the white men traveling with a Shoshone woman and an unusual black-skinned man must have prevailed.


Clark's journals describe the meeting: "At this place we met with three men of a nation called the Skeets-so-mish [the Coeur d'Alenes] who reside at the falls of a small river dischargeing itself into the Columbia on its East side to the South of the enterance of Clarks river. this river they informed us headed in a large lake in the mountains and that the falls below which they reside was at no great distance from the lake. these people are the same in their dress and appearance with the Chopunnish [Nez Perce], tho' their language is entirely different. one of them gave me his whip which was a twisted stick 18 In' in length at one end a pice of raw hide split so as to form two strings about 20 inches in length as a lash, to the other end a string passed through a hole and fastened at each end for a loope to slip over the wrist. I gave in return for this whip a fathom of narrow binding."


Considering the language barrier, with translations going from Coeur d'Alene to Nez Perce to Shoshone to Hidatsa to French to English and then back again, they got things pretty close. The falls would have been Post Falls, since they say it was "no great distance from the lake."


Interestingly, the journals later include some more data on the Skeet-so-mish nation. A June 1, 1806, entry details more about the tribes they met. The information garnered from the Nez Perce at this time was, surprisingly enough, fairly accurate: "The Sket-so-mish Nation resides in 6 villages and are about 70 miles distant from the Chopunnish Nation & amp; beyond a Mountain which that river heads in. The Waytom [Coeur d'Alene] Lake is 10 days around it, has 2 Islands and is 7 days from the Chopunnish. The Falls of the Lartow R [Spokane River] a little below the Lake is 150 feet nearly perpendicular or there abouts. The falls of Clarks river which is only half a days ride from the latter falls between 4 and 500 feet and leaves a continued Sprey. The roads which pass up Clarks River from the falls and that which intersect it from the falls of Lar-tow River are hilly and bad. The Sket-so-mish reside 30 miles up their river... The Skeetsomish reside also on the borders of the Waytom Lake and on 2 Islands within the Same."


The Lartow River falls probably refers to Spokane Falls, which, though not perpendicular, are pretty impressive. The Clarks River is probably the Pend Oreille River.


Additionally, the Corps also mentioned other local tribes in a report separate from the journals. No mention is made of Spokanes, but they did name the "Coos-pel-lar's Nation" who "reside on a river which falls into the Columbia to the N. of Clarks river" containing 30 houses or lodges and 1,600 souls. The Coos-pel-lar Nation probably refers to the Kalispel Tribe.





SOURCES: Spokane Corona by Edmund T. Becher, who believed the encounter in May 1806 was with the Spokane Tribe, and Along the Trail with Lewis and Clark by the publishers of Montana magazine.

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