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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


January 25, 2003 - Issue 79


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Tribes Major Part of Lewis & Clark Kickoff Festivity

by Sherry Devlin of the Missoulian
credits: Photo: Bruce Running Crane, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, from Browning, Mont., holds his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, at ceremonies commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Jan. 18, 2003. The event launched the nation’s three-year commemoration of the expedition across America in 1803-1806 and giving a send- off to the Corps of Discovery II, a traveling interagency exhibition.

Bruce Running Crane, a member of the Blackfeet Nation, from Browning, Mont., holds his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance, at ceremonies commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition in Charlottesville, Va., Saturday, Jan. 18, 2003. The event launched the nation’s three-year commemoration of the expedition across America in 1803-1806 and giving a send- off to the Corps of Discovery II, a traveling interagency exhibition.CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - America began its bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition on Saturday to the drumbeat of Indian nations that were old when this nation was new and whose people had long loved the landscapes that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were credited with discovering.

Gathered on the west lawn of Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop home, dozens of young tribal leaders proclaimed the expedition's anniversary an opportunity to hear - for the first time - all of the voices from the historic trail, and to honor and preserve the remnants of the peoples and places the transcontinental explorers encountered.

Monacan Indian poet Karenne Wood recalled the homelands through which the soldiers passed on their 3,700-mile journey up the Missouri River from St. Louis, across the Rocky Mountains on the Nee-Me-Poo Trail, and at last down the Clearwater, Snake and Columbia rivers to the sea.

For thousands of years, Indian people had tended these places, holding sacred the howl of the wolf, the bloom of the columbine and camas, Wood said. They shared nature's blessings with the outsiders, that they too might hear the grasses sing.

Mandan-Hidatsa tribal leader Amy Mossett honored Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian woman who accompanied the expedition as it ventured west from the Mandan villages in what is now North Dakota, carrying on her back a baby boy just 55 days old.

"She was this nation's first female ambassador," Mossett said. "She was the most celebrated woman in our history - this mysterious, almost mythical figure. But for the Hidatsa and Shosh, she is our ancestor. She lived among us, walked among us, laughed and cried and loved among us. Her spirit remains with us."

The White Shield Singers of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nations filled the mountainside with drumming and songs familiar on the northern plains for thousands of years before the tribes gave food, shelter and knowledge to the white strangers.

"Two hundred years later, we begin the journey again," said James Ronda, the pre-eminent living scholar of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. "If we finish in 2006 as the same people we are today, then this vast enterprise will have failed. Journeys should change us, expand us and enrich us by bringing us face-to-face with wonder and strangeness."

Ronda retold the story of the expedition's origin:

In the summer of 1802, President Jefferson took respite at his beloved Monticello, worn ragged by the political - and actual - heat and humidity of Washington, D.C. On his reading list was Alexander Mackenzie's "Voyages from Montreal," in which the British explorer described his exploration of Canada from Montreal to the Pacific Coast.

What stunned the president was not the details of Mackenzie's adventures, but the explorer's conclusion that Britain must act quickly to occupy the Pacific Northwest and the territory west of the newly liberated American colonies.

"It was at that moment, in this place, that the Lewis and Clark Expedition began," Ronda said. And while Jefferson never ventured more than 50 miles farther west than Monticello, he was "the mainspring of the expedition, " conceiving its mission, convincing Congress to approve its financing, extolling its successes upon the explorers' return.

Saturday's inaugural event coincided with the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's confidential letter to Congress of Jan. 18, 1803, proposing the trek west.

An intelligent officer, with maybe 10 or 12 carefully chosen men, could investigate the Missouri River's "continued navigation from its source, and possibly with a single portage, from the western ocean," Jefferson wrote.

Within two summers, the expedition could be back and the continent's navigation - and therefore, control - won, he added. In reality, the explorers did not return until late September 1806, so much more difficult were the Western mountains to cross than either Jefferson or Lewis had expected.

By June of 1803, Jefferson had the money in hand and a leader for the exploratory corps, his private secretary and Albemarle County neighbor, Meriwether Lewis. It was then that he drafted the expedition's instructions, what historian Ronda believes to be one of the most important documents in American history.

Not only did Jefferson ask Lewis and his co-captain Clark to find the hoped-for Northwest Passage, but he set them forth on a scientific mission. "Lewis and Clark didn't march west," Ronda said. "They questioned their way west."

The journals kept by seven of the men who made the journey from St. Louis to the Pacific and back again were replete with information on the flora, fauna, geography and native peoples they encountered.

Ronda encouraged Americans to commemorate the expedition's 200th anniversary by listening to the many and varied voices along the trail: to all of the 30-plus members of the Corps of Discovery, as well as to the 40-plus Indian tribes whose territories they crossed.

"In a strange and mysterious way, they are us and we are them," he said. "And more than that, this expedition moved through the land and lives of others. The West of 1804 had already been settled and mapped and marked by others."

Thus Ronda's challenge: "To understand this story, we need to get off the boat and get on the banks of those rivers. We need to change our angle of vision. We need to look at this journey through fresh eyes, through the eyes of those who had lived in these landscapes for hundreds and thousands of years."

There will be one missing from the commemoration who desperately wanted to be part of the storytelling, filmmaker Ken Burns reminded the audience. Author-historian Stephen Ambrose, whose "Undaunted Courage" popularized the Corps of Discovery on the eve of its bicentennial, died of lung cancer in October.

"This great and generous man has passed away, leaving a gulf in the historical world that will not soon be filled," Burns said. "We will no longer have the machine-gun staccato of his rough voice, bringing to life his unique vision, dramatic storytelling talent and passionate enthusiasm for this remarkable republic."

Ambrose's greatest love was the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and he loved to regale travelers with stories from the trail and readings from the journals. His passion and enthusiasm were infectious.

"Among the many, many amazing accomplishments of the Corps of Discovery that Steve liked to extol was that across the whole treacherous journey, the Corps managed to lose only one man," Burns said. "How strange, then, it is to have to set off and finish this new journey minus the man who seemed to get the story best, whose magical devotion and love for Lewis and Clark thankfully, at least, survived in his remarkable book and in the memories of those who knew him well and loved him."

Dan Jordan, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation and host of the inaugural bicentennial event, said his group's goal - since planning began in 1998 - was to produce "an all-American program with many voices telling multiple stories."

Much of what happened after Lewis and Clark returned east was devastating to native peoples and cultures, said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians. Their numbers were decimated by smallpox. Their territories were invaded and taken away by white settlers. Some tribes were ordered onto reservations; some were left without land.

But it is time now, 200 years after Jefferson turned his nation's eyes to the west, for the sacred circle of life to come back together, Hall said.

The guard is changing - and the Lewis and Clark bicentennial will reflect that change, said University of Montana history professor Harry Fritz, who was among about 50 Montanans at the inaugural event.

"You are witnessing the passing of the torch from old white male historians to young Indian women," Fritz said at afternoon's end. "It's about time."

"We are going to hear native American voices telling stories that have never been told," said Hal Stearns, the former Missoula Sentinel High School history teacher, now a much-in-demand guide on the Lewis and Clark Trail. This is just the beginning."

The Home of Thomas Jefferson - Monticello
Monticello, home of Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States. Explore Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's mountaintop home, gardens, and plantation. Monticello is owned and operated by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in Charlottesville, Virginia

Charlottesville, VA Map
Maps by Travel

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