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Why Indians Aren't Celebrating the Lewis and Clark Expedition

Allen Pinkham has been doing a lot of soul-searching about the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“This is a heart-wrencher,” says Pinkham (Five Rays of Light), a tribal leader of the Nez Perce (Niimiipuu). “My people were slaughtered. But you don’t read about that. All I read about is Lewis and Clark, the heroes of the day 200 years ago. Well, whose heroes? They’re not my heroes.”

As nationwide events to mark the epic expedition of 1804-1806 enter their second year, Pinkham and other Native Americans are struggling to come to terms with history. In the half-century after the Lewis and Clark expedition helped open the West to white settlement, Native Americans were removed to reservations, ravaged by disease and poverty, and forced to abandon language, religion and culture.

Before white settlers reached their homeland in what today is western Idaho, the Nez Perce numbered over 30,000. Thousands died through disease and in a futile rebellion. Today, there are less than 4,000.

“To us, it was a holocaust—like what happened to the Jewish people,” says Cassandra Kipp, the tribe’s economic development director.

Yet Pinkham, Kipp and other Native American leaders are working actively with the national Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission. They see the bicentennial as a chance for Native Americans to tell their stories, and to benefit economically from the hundreds and thousands of tourists who will follow the trail from St. Louis to the Pacific coast. The Nez Perce will host one of 15 national Lewis and Clark signature events in Lewiston, Idaho, in June 2006.

At first tribal leaders were skeptical. Why should they recognize the very event that marked the beginning of the end? “When tribes like ours were asked to participate, at first it was like a slap in the face,” says Kipp.

Pinkham was one of only two Native Americans at a mid-1990s bicentennial planning meeting at Forth Leavenworth, Kansas.

“And the first thing they said was, ‘We’re going to celebrate this Lewis and Clark bicentennial.’ And we said no, if you want to have Indian involvement, don’t call it a celebration because there’s nothing that we have to celebrate.”

The meeting eventually settled on the word “commemoration.” “It didn’t mean a damn thing to anyone else, but to us it made a great difference,” says Pinkham who now serves on the bicentennial commission’s Circle of Tribal Advisers.

There is no single Native American perspective on the Lewis and Clark expedition. In their two and a half year journey from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast, the explorers encountered more than fifty tribal groups, and each experience was different.

Some, notes Amy Mossett, the commission’s tribal involvement coordinator, “had never before laid eyes on a white man, ever.” But some, like her own nation, the Mandan-Hidatsa, had been trading with the British and French for years.

The Mandan villages on the Knife River in North Dakota where the Corps of Discovery spent its first winter were at the center of an international trading network that stretched from Canada to the Gulf, and the arrival of the expedition caused little stir.

The explorers are not depicted on the painted buffalo hides on which the Mandan recorded the important events of the winter of 1804-05.

“There were other things that were more significant,” says Mossett. “Battles with the Sioux, when they came in and burned our villages. Or when smallpox came up the river. Even a meteor shower was more significant than Lewis and Clark.”

“People come through and they want to know what stories we have about Lewis and Clark,” says Mossett. “Well, the fact that we don’t have any left probably tells you how insignificant these men really were. Lewis and Clark are not our heroes today. And they weren’t our heroes 200 years ago either.”

However, stories about Lewis and Clark are common among the Nez Perce, who rescued the expedition as it straggled, exhausted and half-starved, out of the Bitterroot Mountains of Idaho in late September 1805. They gave them food, helped them build canoes and kept horses for the return trip.

“We showed them a lot of things,” says Kipp. “How to live off the land, eat foods native to the country, and navigate the rivers by canoe. Most of the stories have to do with sharing information with them.”

The bicentennial commission mandates Native American involvement in event planning and programming, and states have Native American representatives on their Lewis and Clark advisory councils or commissions.

Visitor centers and museums along the 3,700-mile trail feature Native American exhibits. At the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center in Great Falls, Montana, visitors can take two routes—one following the Lewis and Clark trail and one documenting the experiences of the tribes they encountered.

However, with some exceptions such as the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute in eastern Oregon, most major exhibits on Native Americans are in visitor centers and museums run by federal and state agencies, not on reservations.

Native American leaders such as Pinkham feel that tribes have been robbed of their history. “The anthropologists and historians and amateur pot-hunters took everything from us,” he says. “They said, ‘Oh, we’d better put this in a museum because these Indians are going to disappear, so we’d better help preserve their culture by putting their belongings on display.’ And I objected to that because we’ve got our own culture. We still make our own arts and crafts, and some tribes have their own museums.”

With the bicentennial, some tribes have obtained grants to build cultural centers and offer programs, but most cannot compete with the major trail sites, according to Mossett.

“Most of us don’t have interpretive centers or nice visitor centers on the reservations,” she says. “And the reason we don’t is because we have other priorities. When you travel through Indian country the priorities focus on education, and on medical, housing, unemployment issues. Any money that tribes do have they’re going to be spending on basic needs. Commemorating Lewis and Clark does not fit in that list of priorities.”

Pinkham says that the bicentennial can give tribes “a renewed sense of their history and culture” as long as they present it themselves. “The tribes have their own story to tell. And they can tell it for themselves. They don’t need an anthropologist to tell it for them.”

To do so, they need to overcome stereotypes, says Mossett. “You know, you must not be an Indian if you don’t have a dance outfit or dress up in feathers and beaded moccasins.”

“We’re not there for the pageantry, and we’re not there to entertain,” she says. “We’re not re-enactors—we’re real Indians.”

Mossett’s mission is to use Lewis and Clark events to increase understanding of the struggles of Native Americans. “One of our most powerful messages is that we are still here. Our languages and cultures have survived. And when you think about what we have been through in the last 200 years we do have something to celebrate. We can celebrate that we survived Lewis and Clark.”

Related Links

  • For current Native American perspectives on Lewis and Clark, see www.nathpo.org/Many_Nations/mn.html . The site is a joint effort of the Native American Journalists Association and the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers.