Native American – White Relations in History


The tragic history of Native Americans is a matter that is rarely discussed in all its complexity. Popular history chooses to overlook a systemic and deliberate elimination of the native inhabitants in the newly settled Western United States. Idaho served as one of the focal points for the development of historical interactions. The evolution of Native American – white relations followed a progressive trajectory of cooperation to exploitation and ending in practical dominance, each stage of interaction manipulated to serve and benefit settlers in the hegemonic expansion.


The Lewis and Clark Expedition was initiated by Thomas Jefferson to explore the land acquired as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Their mission was scientific and diplomatic, to collect critical knowledge. In their journals, Lewis and Clark mention an encounter with the Indian tribe. The expedition sought to establish themselves as comers of peace, using known Native American traditions to signal friendship. They also provided trinkets as gifts in the attempt to appease the natives (Lewis and Clark 186). In return, the expedition received much more valuable aid through shelter, provisions, transportation, and guidance through unknown areas of the region.

The Lewis and Clark Corps carried a significant anthropological objective. In their travels. The explorers were able to observe the culture, way of life, and politics within and amongst the Native American tribes. They documented the geography, environmental aspects, and survival techniques by studying ways of how the tribes survived, even with limited resources. In the context of history, this expedition was a critical part of the imperialistic expansion, that the Native Americans perpetuated due to the acceptance of their culture.

The Lewis and Clark Corps spent more than a month camped on the shore of the Clearwater River where they interacted with the Coeur d’Alene, tribal members. The Native Americans provided critical information to the expedition that was used to map the area and rivers nearby. The knowledge provided a strategic advantage for the next generation of explorers and traders. As trade outposts and forts were established in the area, tribes such as the Coeur d’Alene played a critical role in the evolution of trade and migration in the region, expanding fur trade into an economic enterprise that allowed for the survival of these settlements (Woodworth-Ney 15).

Manipulation and Exploitation

The fur trade was part of the Native American culture and interaction with European settlers for a significant time before the dawn of the 19th century. However, the bartering system was based on necessity rather than wealth which was a mostly colonial concept. Fur trade served as the next stepping stone for expansion as several entrepreneurs and fur companies such as the Hudson Bay Company explored the Snake River area and the surrounding region (Schwantes 25). Driven by economic expansion, these enterprises established trading posts throughout Columbia, Idaho, and Montana that would be used as points of the base for the growth of settlements.

The colonists required Native American aid and labor for expansion, both economic and settlement-wise. However, the culture of the Indians was protective of their territories and natural resources. Therefore, the settlers began to introduce radical measures for the exploitation of Native American resources and labor. Coercion by force was commonly used along with political manipulation of warring tribes. Furthermore, settlers consisting of mostly men began to take Indian women as wives that led to the intermixing of races and tribes. Other sociological pressures such as the introduction of alcohol leading to addictions were used to disrupt the Native American cultural norms (Benedict, Lecture 3, Observations on the Fur Trade).

The inclusion of Native American tribes was extremely beneficial for the white settlers since more often than not they gained a profit. Furs were often bought for significantly cheaper than they would be resold. Furthermore, the competition was instigated by the Native American tribes which forced them to hunt their food source (buffalo) and begin to engage in intertribal conflict for resources instead of uniting against aggressive settler expansion. In turn, this provided a lucrative market for European goods and weapons which were sold to tribes like the Blackfeet of Montana that chose to side with the settlers’ interests at the time (Lohse). The balance of power in the region was disrupted as war, poverty, and epidemic raged amongst the tribes while the white settlements economically flourished at the Indian’s expense. As a result of this manipulation, the Native Americans lost many of their traditions and ways of life, gradually succumbing to the control of the settlers.


As the 19th century progressed, the Native American tribes in Idaho became weaker and dwindled in numbers, becoming colonized by the settlers and driven to undesirable territories. A reservation system was developed for these tribes which would separate them from white settlers, thus preventing conflict (Schwantes 131). The tribes were paid (essentially bribed) into signing treaties that would force them unto specially outlined territories. However, the agreements greatly increased tensions and increased hostilities as evident by the Boise and Bruneau Treaties. Attacks on settlers traveling through the territory became more common which led to military retaliation (Madsen 44). The Native Americans were driven into desperation and desolation. Officials observed that the Indians were starving and experiencing hardship with disappearing games and lack of adequate shelter. The barren land provided to the tribes almost drove them to extinction, and it was years before they acquired farming techniques and technologies to become self-sufficient. The tribal chiefs were willing to make any necessary sacrifices while the U.S. government was forced to make supply purchases to prevent armed uprisings (Madsen 56).

Towards the end of the century, more Native American hunting and the living land were usurped by white settlers. Local and national politics ignored Indian interests or basic needs. At times, the United States policy towards Native Americans was systematically focused on isolation, control, and cultural annihilation. The concept of Manifest Destiny which drove Westward expansion established the white settlers as the dominant force morally and culturally, which inherently justified any outcomes that would lead to population growth and prosperity. The Indians were manipulated, lied to, and conquered with a primary objective of suppression of the Native American culture for political and ideological means (Benedict, Lecture 6, Overview of Federal Indian Policy). The final document is known as the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 allowed for the complete control of Indian land by the U.S. federal government. It outlined the process of surveying and division of Native American land and sought to divide the tribes into individual units (Benedict, Dawes Severalty Act). This continued to profit white settlers while splintering the tribes socially and economically. It was the official and legal finale of a lengthy process of white domination over the Native American land and people.


The evolution of Native American – white relations followed a progressive trajectory of cooperation to exploitation and ending in practical dominance, each stage of interaction manipulated to serve and benefit settlers in the hegemonic expansion. This report closely follows the gradual transition which occurred over the 19th century, from initial encounters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the enactment of the infamous Dawes Severalty Act of 1887. White settlers maintained an aggressive and expansionist political agenda, using strategic, technological, and cultural dominance to force Native Americans to succumb as a population.

Works Cited

Benedict, Hope. “Dawes Severalty Act.” Idaho History. Idaho State University, Pocatello. 2018.

“Lecture 3, Observations on the Fur Trade.” Idaho History. Idaho State University, Pocatello. 2018.

“Lecture 6, Overview of Federal Indian Policy.” Idaho History. Idaho State University, Pocatello. 2018.

Lewis, Meriwether and William Clark. The Journals of Lewis and Clark. Edited by Bernard DeVoto, Mariner Books, 1997.

Lohse, Ernest. “Southeastern Idaho Native American Prehistory and History.” Idaho Museum of Natural History, 1993, Web.

Madsen. Brigham. The Lemhi: Sacajawea’s People. Caxton Press. 1990.

Schwantes, Carlos Arnaldo. In Mountain Shadows: A History of Idaho. University of Nebraska Press, 1991.

Woodworth-Ney, Laura. Women in the American West. ABC-CLIO, 2008.