Tribes Dubious About Lewis and Clark Celebration
On a warm, summer day, his grandfather’s blue pickup truck rumbling down a windy, barren trail, the 13-year-old boy made his way to the old cottonwood tree by the river. He closed his eyes, raised one arm to the skies, then gazed at the sun as he sprinkled his traditional offering of tobacco on the ground -- to the east, to the south, to the west, to the north.
“You can feel it when you get there,” said William TalksAbout, now 54. “A sense of calm, security, a sense of my heritage and my culture being played out even in my mind.”
He remembers the moment as if it were yesterday.
Here in the place TalksAbout finds sacred, two Blackfeet Indians were killed by Meriwether Lewis and one of his soldiers during the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1806. It was the only bloodshed of the expedition.
But finding out what led to the skirmish at Two Medicine River depends on who you ask. The Blackfeet say the story America has been told is false.
As the country celebrates the bicentennial of the journey by Lewis and William Clark through the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and to the Pacific, American Indians -- so crucial to the expedition’s success -- are trying to find where they fit into the story. They also want to make sure that their side of the story isn’t lost in the revelry.
On the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeastern Montana, a sign on the outskirts of Wolf Point invites tourists to stay: “Lewis and Clark slept here. Why don’t you?” The sign is about the only mention of the expedition in the community of 2,700.
Inside the Wolf Point Cafe, waitress Janielle Derden, 19, is behind the counter. “I don’t think too many people really think about it,” she said. It’s a familiar response among Indians in Montana.
Lewis and Clark? Never paid much attention, some say. All the history Indians have of Lewis and Clark, aside from that pressed on them by whites, are the stories passed down orally from generation to generation.
With the bicentennial attracting so much attention, Indians are being forced to confront their feelings about the two white men who passed through their homelands 200 years ago. Lewis and Clark documented plants, animals and people while searching unsuccessfully for an all-water route to the Pacific. Along the way, they relied on Indians for horses, food and guidance.
Lewis and Clark presented them with gifts and peace medals from their new “father,” President Jefferson. And they had a plan for the tribes: trade exclusively with Americans and cease fighting with other tribes. The Indians weren’t sure what to make of the men and didn’t know if they would see their kind again. That may have been the start of a cultural difference that persists today.
“Lewis and Clark kind of had a complex agenda with Indians,” said Clay Jenkinson, scholar in residence at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. “It was sort of pushy. They carried a considerable naivete and a fair amount of cultural arrogance. It’s really a cultural misunderstanding.”
America celebrates Lewis and Clark as heroes who documented the unknown and opened the West to expansion. Indians strongly oppose the word “celebration” for the bicentennial; they prefer commemoration for an event that was just a blip in their history.
“Lewis and Clark was only one day in our lives,” said Darrell Martin, vice president of the Fort Belknap Indian Community Council in north-central Montana. “We couldn’t care less.”
Jim Wilke tosses his head back, his long, black locks stretching down his back, and has a good laugh.
“The majority of people look at Lewis and Clark and say, ‘What brave souls,’ ” said Wilke, tourism director for the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, home to the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine Indians. “I don’t quite follow that.”
When the expedition traversed Indian territory, there were massive buffalo, elk, deer and antelope herds. Since 1974, Fort Belknap has been rebuilding its buffalo herd and Wilke points out several hundred buffalo gathered against Snake Butte.
There were no reservations 200 years ago, and the problems today -- methamphetamine labs, alcohol abuse, diabetes and poverty -- were unknown.
In Lodgepole, a small Roman Catholic church on a hill is the social hub on this Sunday, with parishioners of St. Thomas Church munching doughnuts and sipping coffee in the fellowship hall after services.
Lewis and Clark are rarely discussed.
Tracy King, 48, a Gros Ventre Indian, said, “If it wasn’t Lewis and Clark, it would have been somebody else.”
But it was Lewis and Clark, and their impact was huge -- it was the first diplomatic and cultural contact between many tribes and the United States. Settlers moved West, opened up trade routes and the American empire began in the West.
“It was the beginning of contacts that changed everybody’s lives,” said James Ronda, a University of Tulsa historian and Lewis and Clark expert. “This is a story that connects the past to the present. It’s a story that is not over by any means. The real significance of the bicentennial is to look at where we all are now.”
“This is a story about land, the places we call home,” said Bobbie Conner, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation member and director of Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in Pendleton, Ore. “It’s a tiny, tiny story but has tremendous impact.”
Some Indians believe that the expedition was the beginning of hard times. Soon, migration brought diseases, alcohol and massive slaughter of buffalo. The government eventually forced tribes onto reservations a fraction of their native lands.
“Not a single tribe escaped some kind of relocation or confinement or some kind of misery dealt at the hands of the federal government,” said Ben Sherman, an Oglala Lakota Indian and president of the Western American Indian Chamber.
In northwest Montana, the community of Browning wakes up to a spring snowfall that has blanketed the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. At the Piegan Institute, students slowly file in to the private school and load up their plates with waffles.
In a reservation plagued by poverty, the school is a bright spot, offering students a chance to reconnect to the past by learning their native language. Chalkboards and walls are full of words that are foreign to anyone but the Blackfeet. The 30 students speak only Blackfeet in school; English is for after school.
They all know the story of two Blackfeet boys -- 12 and 13 -- during the expedition. But their version is different from that told in the expedition journals.
Jesse DesRosier, 14, who wears his hair braided down his back, tells the story like this: Two Blackfeet boys were on their way home when the men of the expedition spotted them and invited them to camp.
“Lewis kept insisting they camp with them. He said, ‘We have a gift for you,’ and they had hands on guns at all times,” he said. In the middle of the night, the boys tried to leave. One of Lewis’ men woke up and stabbed one boy. Lewis shot the other.
Lewis contended that the Indians were trying to steal the men’s guns. Reuben Fields killed one Blackfeet and when Indians tried to steal horses, Lewis shot the other. They didn’t say how old they thought they were.
“It made the Blackfeet not trust the white people” long afterward, Jesse said.
By late morning, the students are practicing a play they will perform at the Confluence of Cultures, a Lewis and Clark event this spring at the University of Montana in Missoula. They act out the deadly encounter with Lewis and Clark, with Jesse playing one of the boys.
Then the play shifts into what happened to Indians in the years after the expedition. Students are brought to a boarding school and told not to speak their native language, a reference to when the government forced Indians into mission schools and tried to strip them of everything Indian.
At Fort Belknap, Indians are preparing a skit for tourists that depicts Lewis and Clark relying on the Indians for guidance.
“We like to say we’re the ones who discovered Lewis and Clark,” said Robert DesRosier, 51, Jesse’s uncle.
With three years of bicentennial events, starting this year, tribes know that tourists are bound to show up. Although they know they won’t agree with many visitors about Lewis and Clark, they don’t want their role limited to dancing at a commemorative event. They figure that they might as well try to make a little money. Many are working on arts and crafts, reservation tours and story-telling.
“If there’s some money to be made off this thing, let’s join in and attract some tourists ourselves,” Sherman said.
What Indians hope happens is a better understanding of their culture. And they want to tell their side of the story.
“For so long, people thought that you just had these two American guys who came out and explored the West,” said Amy Mossett, tourism director for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Tribes in North Dakota. “For us Native Americans, nothing could be further from the truth.”