Diplomatic Gifts from the United States

Robert A. Ganong, Painting of "Mandan Leaders in Council with Lewis and Clark." PM 2003.0.47
Wide silver arm bands were customary Euroamerican gifts to male tribal leaders. The beavers engraved on this pair were the object of the fur trade. PM 73-3-10/7118
Lewis and Clark carried wampum shell beads (made from Quahog and whelk shell) to present as gifts to tribal leaders. Passamaquoddy, Maine. PM 985-27-10/60265B
String of purple wampum, Algonquin/Oneida. PM 99-12-10/53011
One of a pair of men's red trade wool leggings with blue woolen strips and blue beaded edging. Plains. PM 99-12-10/53056
Ornate pipe tomahawk, engraved in 1818, made for presentation. Lewis carried his own pipe tomahawk to smoke with the Indian people he encountered, and he purchased others as gifts for tribal leaders. Wood and metal, North America. PM 985-27-10/60340

Lewis and Clark conducted formal diplomatic meetings with many tribal leaders. These occasions were dramatic and ceremonial, and often lasted for many hours. Dressed in military finery, the captains read from a prepared script that explained the territorial and political claims of the United States and expressed the desire for peaceful trade and friendship.

Lewis and Clark enacted existing conventions that guided Indian-white "forest diplomacy" in the eastern U.S. Many related protocols, such as gift exchange and pipe smoking, were Indian practices that were developed to frame their relations with Europeans.  Early French, English and Spanish officials had established rituals such as the "dressing" of tribal leaders in European military uniforms and the presentation of peace medals.  Before the expedition, Lewis purchased and prepared bundles of gifts specifically for chiefs, including specially-made American peace medals, fine uniform coats and hats, and woolen leggings. Tribal leaders reciprocated by presenting customary diplomatic gifts to the American explorers. Afterwards, they often engaged in less formal trade.

The exchange of diplomatic gifts recognized the standing of each nation and formalized the creation of a new relationship between them.  The gifts also served as tangible reminders of the mutual obligations that such a relationship entailed.