Everything which is incomprehensible to the Indians, they call big medicine

Monday, May 27th, 2019

According to Lewis and Clark: Linguistic Pioneers, a 1940 study by Elijah Criswell, more than one thousand words appeared in print for the first time in Lewis and Clark’s journals:

Alan H. Hartley, author of the 2004 book Lewis and Clark Lexicon of Discovery, notes that without word creation skills, “it would have been difficult for them to discuss their discoveries amongst themselves, and even more difficult to convey and explain the discoveries to their sponsors — who had, in many cases, not been far inland from the eastern seaboard.” Carefully worded descriptions were essential.

One of Lewis and Clark’s primary methods for creating new terms was naming animals or plants according to some salient feature, whether physical, behavioral, or otherwise. The explorers noticed “a curious kind of deer,” in Clark’s words, “its ears large and long,” that was obviously different from eastern deer. Lewis explains in his journal how they chose a name for it: “The ear and tail of this animal … so well comported with those of the mule … that we have … adapted the appellation of the mule deer.” Lewis called a small swan that he spotted along the Pacific coast the whistling swan because it made “a kind of whistling sound.” A mountain ram with unusually large, twisted horns was named bighorn. Other animals they noticed include tumble-bug (dung beetle), tiger cat (lynx), and leather-wing bat. Plants that received similar treatment include the red elm and the snowberry (“a globular berry … as white as wax”).

Occasionally, Lewis and Clark picked up a name from the French trappers who crisscrossed the region. Few of the terms stuck, but one that did is Yellowstone. Although they started by using the French, they eventually switched to an English translation. Clark uses both the French and the English versions in this line from his journal: “Capt. Lewis concluded to go by land as far as the Rochejhone [roche jaune, ‘yellow rock’] or yellow stone river.”

Lewis and Clark based some terms on where they found a plant or an animal—sand-hill crane, Osage apple, and various denizens of the prairie, such as prairie lark, prairie hen, prairie wolf (coyote), and prairie dog. They also noted when items were found in buffalo territory. Since the 18th century, Americans had been calling bison buffalo (a word that originally referred to oxen), and Lewis and Clark used that term for the bison they saw on the plains. They created or recorded several words connected with that animal—for example, buffalo grass (where buffalo graze), buffalo berry (found on the upper Missouri in buffalo territory), and buffalo robe (made from buffalo skins).

The explorers often went to great lengths to study a creature closely before deciding what to name it. “Though not self-proclaimed naturalists,” says Hartley, “they were keen observers and de facto naturalists.” They also knew that Jefferson wanted meticulous details. For instance, while the Corps overwintered in Oregon from 1805 to 1806, Lewis spotted what he suspected was a different kind of deer from the mule deer found on the plains, although it looked similar. He writes, “The Black-tailed fallow deer are peculiar to this coast.” The ears, he notes, are “rather larger… than the common deer,” and the horns resemble those of the mule deer. The tail is white, but the hair of the sides and top is “quite black.” Concluding that these deer were a distinct type, he labeled them black-tailed deer. Lewis’s instincts were right. Zoologists later classified the Columbian black-tailed deer (Odocoileus hemionus columbianus) as a subspecies of the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus).

Before deciding what to call the grizzly bear, Lewis and Clark studied several pelts and consulted with indigenous people. The men first mention grizzlies in their journals while in present-day Montana. Lewis initially calls them brown or yellow bears, saying their color is “yellowish brown.” Others in the party describe the bear as “whiteish,” and Clark sometimes refers to the creatures as “white bears.” After the men had shot several and taken a close-up look, they realized that the fur was variegated, often featuring silvery tips. Clark started calling the bear grizzly, a word for gray, and Lewis eventually followed suit. Lewis recounts a discussion with a band of Nez Perce in Idaho, who studied “several skins of the bear which we had killed” and concurred that they were members of the species the explorers named grizzly. Lewis concludes in his notes that the bears they had been calling brown or yellow, whiteish, and grizzly are all “the same species or family of bears, which assumes all those colors at different ages and seasons of the year.”


Lewis and Clark also gave English names to several Native American cultural items. They called a tribe’s meeting house a council house, and the place for taking steam baths a sweat lodge or sweat house. “I saw near an old Indian encampment a sweat house covered with earth,” writes Clark in his journal. They also adopted a specific meaning for medicine—something with magical powers—which was probably a translation of the Ojibwe word mashkiki. Lewis writes, “Everything which is incomprehensible to the Indians, they call big medicine.” The word appears in the journals in several combinations, including medicine man, medicine bag, medicine dance, and war medicine. Clark records that some of the party went to see a ceremonial “war medicine” dance while the Corps was camped among the Mandan tribe.

My favorite bit of “big medicine” is Lewis and Clark’s air rifle.


  1. Phil B. says:

    One of the problems with the early air guns was the seals to the air chamber. They relied on horn to provide the seal which dried out and distorted so that it either would not hold air or, as noted, discharged the entire charge at once.

    Modern synthetic seals solve the problem and make them practical propositions.

  2. Kirk says:

    One rather suspects that a great deal of cross-cultural confusion was going on, with regards to the whole “medicine” thing. Like as not, the Indians framed it one way, and the men on the Lewis and Clark expedition framed it another. And, given the set of prejudices that they may have taken to the table, it’s entirely possible that they did so in such a manner that it was framed as rank superstition.

    I’ve run into a lot of interesting linguistic tics, over the years, and one of them is that there are a lot of words that just don’t translate worth spit. The concepts encoded in them, and the usages reflect an entirely different worldview, and you often don’t get the nuance that the word or phrase might have in the native tongue when you try to translate it.

    Hell, it’s difficult to do in between different dialects of English, not to mention all the different usages of slang and jargon.

  3. Paul from Canada says:

    There are several place names in Canada, including, IIRC, the name Canada itself, that have an incorrect etymology due to exactly those kinds of misunderstandings.

  4. Alrenous says:

    I’ve always enjoyed the name ‘grizzly’ bears, since meeting one is apt to result in your grisly death.

  5. Graham says:

    The National Film Board of Canada, I think, and in more recent years a history-focused charitable foundation, produce short commercials featuring vignettes of Canadian history.

    The original ones featured standard Canadian history situations, with the occasional forward looking one like the first female medical student at the University of Toronto, an early female MP who was a prison reformer, and so on.

    One of the old ones featured Samuel de Champlain and his men being greeted by an Iroquoian elder at Stadacona or Hochelaga [these being villages on the approximate later sites of Quebec City and Montreal, and early landing sites for the French expedition] and the old man kept uttering words of welcome containing syllables very loosely approximating “Canada”.

    Champlain has two interpreters. One a priest who insists the word the man used meant “nation” and “Canada” was its name. The other, a rough looking voyageur type who insists it just means “that cluster of huts over there”.

  6. Graham says:

    Canada: A Cluster of Huts. One of our former prime ministers, Joe Clark, used to describe Canada as a “community of communities”. On some level it was an attempt to reframe the period’s multiculturalism in very traditional Red Tory communitarian,subsidiarist terms. I think “a cluster of huts” would have been better because it would have sounded like an elaborate faux-aboriginal symbolic metaphor. A Cluster of Huts around a common Council Fire.

    But I digress.

    Also, I can’t actually remember off hand whether the denizens of the St Lawrence were Algonquin speakers or Iroquoian speakers. It seems to have been an interculture zone at Contact. Plus there was that specific subset of Iroquoian speakers in the Five [later Six] Nations that later started to claim everything was their territory and made a fair effort in the Beaver Wars to make that a reality, and now claim all of it in retrospect as their ancestral domain.

    I also learned from this the origin of “grizzly”. You’d have thought that would have been obvious to me earlier, seeing as I am comparatively exposed to the French language for a pure anglophone and being disposed to live life in moral shades of gris.

    Somehow, that never clicked. Probably because I just assumed they were brown, and have never been within hundreds of miles of one to see the silver tips. Lucky, that.

    Apropos of that, I long assumed “bruin” as a name for bears was somehow of French origin. The interwebs suggest it was always an English idiom, derived from the Dutch word for brown, and referring to brown bears only. Huh.

  7. Kirk says:

    Interesting thing about the words for bears… They’re nearly all metaphors for them, because to name one was to call it up. Much like we did not use the dreaded “R-word” in the desert, to mention the bear by name was to invoke its presence, and nobody wanted bears.

    Frankly, up until the advent of the rifled gun, the bear was the apex predator nearly anywhere people went. Damn things were virtually unkillable, and the various Indian tribes went out of their way not to mess with them. A guy who’d killed a bear? He was a Big Deal, and that scene where Lewis and Clark are casually showing off a bunch of different bear hides to the locals probably did more to impress/intimidate them than anyone on our side realized.

    Bears are really bad news, if all you’ve got are stone-age weapons. They’re gonna take your kills, they’re gonna kill you, and they’re pretty much invincible for all practical uses. The language remembers that, if nothing else–All the words for “bear” in European languages are essentially euphemism.

  8. Graham says:

    Nobody wants bears even now.

    Homer Simpson on not feeding them: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-QQJsOUj1us

    bear patrol https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OkV_ztynYDM

    bear patrol part 2 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EiUcY4dECqA

  9. Graham says:

    Have you seen The Revenant? There’s a bear attack scene in that that’s as close as I ever want to be to seeing such a thing.

    Also, I have yet to see that film The Grizzly Man about Timothy Treadwell. I gather the never released, possibly destroyed audio track of his moment of death was among the most horrifying sounds ever heard to those few who listened to it. I can only imagine.

  10. Paul from Canada says:


    The Treadwell tape certainly did exist, as I have heard an excerpt, and yes,it is every bit as bad as you imagine, especially since his girlfriend was also killed by the bear.

    “..Frankly, up until the advent of the rifled gun, the bear was the apex predator nearly anywhere people went.”

    Even after! Polar Bears still haven’t internalized the message that they are no longer at the top. They remain the only predator that will actively and deliberately stalk and kill a human, treating it as normal prey (which for such a long time, we were).

  11. Paul from Canada says:

    For all my libertarian-ism, I love the NFB! Maybe it is an association with a carefree time in my childhood, but I remember those little short films Graham talks about.

    The serious ones he mentions, but also the cartoon ones, like the Log-driver’s Waltz, Blackfly, Spence’s Republic, and Cordell Baker’s The Cat Came Back and The Big Snit.

  12. Graham says:

    We did have a rogue bruin in Ottawa last year, right in the market [think, district of farmers market, restaurants and bars, right in the heart of the city].

    I hear it ambled around for a while, I forget the time of day, then possibly treed itself. Ended up treed, one way or another. There were newspaper photos.

    We speculated on how it had gotten so far into the urban environment and by what route. Ottawa does have some more or less quasi-natural avenues cutting through it from the rural zone but not so many right to that spot. Coyotes, foxes, and so on turn up in the city core. Bears, not so often.

    It might have swum the Ottawa river from Gatineau, the much less built up Quebec city on the other side. Bears are a highly effective amphibious weapons system.

  13. Graham says:

    I love The Log Driver’s Waltz.

    I have mentioned on this site that a friend of mind has a son who has recently entered the army [infantry].

    A few years ago we were at their house and mucking about on YouTube and I mentioned having watched that video again at a distance of many years since first seeing it.

    My friend’s son, seeing it for the first time, concluded it was “the most Canadian thing ever”.


    I see a commenter has expressed the same sentiment.

    Listening to it now.

    Canadiana Bonus points- song written by Wade Hemsworth and sung by Kate and Anna McGarrigle.

  14. Graham says:

    The other Most Canadian Thing Ever from the NFB:


    The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier. This is awesome Canadian nostalgia even to a native Torontonian.

  15. Paul from Canada says:

    OMG! I forgot that one!

    “Dear Mr. H’Eaton….”!!!

  16. Graham says:

    Ever see this one? I saw it in school.


    Also very Canadian. The book was written by an American. I never knew that.

  17. Paul from Canada says:

    I had not, though somewhere in the past I had Bill Mason’s book “Path of the Paddle”.

    I do remember seeing this one in school, https://youtu.be/xYmcN12M97o
    though I had no idea who Buster Keaton was at the time, nor his importance in film history.

  18. Graham says:

    I had never seen that one. Brilliant.

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