Monday, September 26, 2011

Lessons in Reciprocity: The Return of a Clatsop Canoe

It seems some descendants of the explorer William Clark have donated a replacement canoe for one their ancestor stole from the Clatsops in 1806. "Some of Clark’s descendants and a few donors stepped forward to pay for the canoe, which was custom built in Veneta, Ore. The five-hour ceremony on Saturday included songs, gift exchanges and the maiden voyage of the replica canoe. Ray Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Nation’s tribal council, said the return of the canoe is a 'good place to begin healing.'”

"Hopefully this will lift that family
curse I told you kids about."
The theft is rather a famous incident in stories of the Corps of Discovery, and is related by even the most shameless hagiographers as an example of something bad that the Captains did to the Indians along their path. The finest historian of the expedition, Jim Ronda, calls the incident "a blot on the expedition's honor." The theft was planned in advance, as related by Clark in the expedition's journal for March 17, 1806:

we have had our perogues prepared for our departer, and shal set out as soon as the weather will permit. the weather is so precarious that we fear by waiting untill the first of April that we might be detained several days longer before we could get from this to the Cathlahmahs as it must be calm or we cannot accomplish that part of our rout. Drewyer returned late this evening from the Cathlahmahs with our canoe which Sergt. Pryor had left some days since, and also a canoe which he had purchased from those people. for this canoe he gave my uniform laced coat and nearly half a carrot of tobacco. it seems that nothing excep this coat would induce them to dispose of a canoe which in their mode of traffic is an article of the greatest val[u]e except a wife, with whom it is equal, and is generally given in exchange to the father for his daughter. I think the U' States are indebted to me another Uniform coat, for that of which I have disposed on this occasion was but little woarn.— we yet want another canoe, and as the Clatsops will not sell us one at a price which we can afford to give we will take one from them in lue of the six Elk which they stole from us in the winter.

You can see the need for self-justification in Clark's writings: "in lue of the six Elk which they stole from us in the winter." Historians often point to the incident as a product of the troublesome and declining relationship the Corps had with the coastal peoples over the long winter, "part of a larger pattern of growing distrust of Indian relations" as William Lang describes it.

This is true but I would go a step farther to say that the theft of the canoe by the Americans might be read not as a rejection of native rights but rather an adoption of native trading patterns. Anthropologists describe native trade as taking place within rules that were determined by the level of reciprocity between the two parties. If you were on good terms with the other party (or wished to be on good terms) the exchange would often be framed in terms of gifts. One party might give another party something of value as a gift, but with the unspoken assumption that a gift of equal value would be forthcoming from the recipient. (Whites often missed this lat part.) This is called generalized reciprocity.

"This canoe? We, uh, we found it. Yeah, found it."
If you were on neutral terms with the other party, it was traditional to haggle over the exchange. This process is called balanced reciprocity and most closely resembles trade as understood by 19th century Americans. Under balanced reciprocity, each side drove the hardest bargain it could. Thus the explorers were forced to part with a "uniform laced coat and nearly half a carrot of tobacco" for one canoe.

Hardest for the modern reader (and Americans of the time) to understand is the exchange of goods that took place between peoples who were on bad or distrustful terms. This negativity reciprocity resembled stealing. Heck, it was stealing, but it was also more than that. If you were on bad terms with another tribe you might steal their horses or food caches or whatever. At the same time, you might want to keep the door open to future trade, and so you might leave something of value behind, or make good the theft with some items of value at some point in the future. The Clatsop had been introducing the Americans to the concept of negative reciprocity the entire winter by pilfering small goods from the explorers and hardly bothering to cover it up.

Equals six elk.
An example is the aforementioned Case of the Purloined Elk. In February some Clatsops took the freshly killed animals from an American cache. When the captains complained to Chief Coboway about the stolen ungulates, he sent the expedition three tasty live dogs. (It is to be noted that some members of the expedition particularly savored dog meat, and the the Corps consumed at least 200 dogs on their two-year journey.) This is a classic exampled of negative reciprocity in action.

Did the Clatsops interpret the theft of their canoe as an example of negative reciprocity? There is some suggestive evidence that they did. In 1814 the Clatsops were visited by a new set of imperialists, the British Northwest Company. When Chief Coboway met with expedition leader Alexander Henry (to return some British goods that Indian people had stolen), the Indian leader produced a certificate of good conduct that Lewis and Clark had left with him. That Cobaway apparently valued this certificate enough to have kept it all that time, and considered it worth producing to the British trader, may indicate that he considered the Americans not so much thieves as troublesome trading partners.

Henry, an experienced hand in the fur trade, gave the chief some clothes, and "gave him a writing in lieu of the American one, which I threw in the fire before him."  Unlike Lewis and Clark, Alexander Henry understood the rules of reciprocity.

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