Lewis and Clark ... and the Indians: a bicentennial's delicate balance

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark pushed off from the banks of the Mississippi River near St. Louis on May 14, 1804, along with a group of skilled botanists, zoologists, and survivalists, the two had little idea of what lay ahead.

Their only directive, given by President Thomas Jefferson: Reach the Pacific Ocean.

The journey, which lasted two years and four months, is widely taught as one of America's greatest adventure stories - symbolizing the country's strength of spirit and thirst for discovery.

But only when it's taught from Captain Lewis and Lieutenant Clark's perspectives. For the 114 native American tribes they encountered along the route, it wasn't a story of "discovery." In fact, for many Indians, the expedition and settlement to come were a death sentence.

So it's no surprise that the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's journey is causing consternation on Indian reservations across America. Just over a decade ago, the 500-year celebration of Christopher Columbus's arrival in the New World brought massive protests from native people throughout the Western Hemisphere.

At the time, historian Garry Wills wrote: "A funny thing happened on the way to the quincentennial observation of America's 'discovery.' Columbus got mugged. This time the Indians were waiting for him."

That uneasy commemoration and the hard feelings it elicited among native Americans was a cautionary tale for Lewis and Clark planners; it became the model not to follow, says Robert Archibald, president of The National Council for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, a nonprofit organizing group.

"One of the reasons Columbus's quincentennial caused so many problems was that nobody could decide whose story it was," he says. "Was it Columbus's, the Indians', the Portuguese, the Spanish, the Italians'? Everyone kept fighting over the story, and it differed depending on who was telling it."

This time, says Dr. Archibald, the intent is clear: to commemorate the journey, rekindle its spirit, and remember the contributions and goodwill of native peoples.

To that end, the tribes that the adventurers encountered 200 years ago have been asked to be heavily involved in activities over a four-year period. Of the roughly 60 remaining tribal governments, 40 have agreed to participate, with one member of each tribe sitting on the Circle of Tribal Advisors on the national council.

On their recommendation, loaded words such as "discovery" and "celebration" have been erased from the vocabulary, replaced by words like "journey" and "commemoration." The idea, says Archibald, is to give Americans a more balanced view.

Although tribes were reluctant to participate at first, many came to view the partnership as an opportunity to educate a global audience about their culture and concerns, both past and present. In that spirit, their involvement isn't simply to "put on a show" of song and dance, says Amy Mossett, the tribal involvement coordinator for the national council and a member of the Mandan tribe. It will include lectures, plays, and museum exhibits.

But don't confuse participation with acceptance.

"Lewis and Clark are not our heroes; they never will be our heroes," says Ms. Mossett. "They represent the opening of the West to American settlement - and that meant dissettlement of native Americans and the destruction of their cultures and families. But one thing we do have to celebrate is that we survived Lewis and Clark."

In Montana, for example, where Lewis and Clark spent more time than any other state, mention of the explorers is met by ambivalence, if not resentment, on many native American reservations.

Tribal officials say that although Columbus's arrival 500 years ago launched the conquest of native peoples and their homelands, Lewis and Clark are credited with bringing that conquest to their own backyards. Some believe their way of life began to disintegrate with the brokering of the Louisiana Purchase and expansion of America in the 19th century.

Walter Fleming, chairman of the department of Native American Studies at Montana State University in Bozeman and a member of the Kickapoo tribe, teaches an alternative perspective of Lewis and Clark.

Professor Fleming's courses routinely question traditional history. Was Lewis and Clark's Shoshone guide Sacagawea really a liberated woman, or was she a slave? Did the explorers really regard native Americans as their equals?

Fleming says that even the changing of "celebration" to "commemoration" is insulting - because for Indian people, it means the same thing. "When native Americans complain, we're told to just get over it, which is like telling a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust to just forget what happened 60 years ago," he says. "The story of Lewis and Clark is a lightning rod for us."

But tribal advisers on the national council say they don't see Indian participation as a sign of approval. Instead, partnership gives them an opportunity to discuss issues facing native Americans today, such as the loss of ancient languages, desecration of sacred sites, and a lack of infrastructure on reservations.

"Another benefit is that we could finally reclaim our role in this history that so many Americans learned in third grade," says Bobbie Conner, vice chair of the national council and a member of the Umatilla tribe. "This group of people traveling through the wilderness, well, those were our homelands. We were already there, watching them come and watching them go. Many times we could have ended the expedition, but we didn't."

All along the route, native Americans provided the explorers with food and water, shelter, information about the route ahead, and even an emotional lift.

"The Lewis and Clark expedition is one of the great American stories of heroism, bravery, and human endurance," says Robert Miller, an associate professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland and a member of the Eastern Shawnee tribe. "But the complete history must include the fact that without the assistance of Indian people, the expedition would not have succeeded."

Todd Wilkinson contributed to this report from Bozeman, Mont.

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