Dakota is smack dab in the middle of the 200th anniversary of the
Lewis and Clark expedition. This is especially true in western North
Dakota and along the Missouri River in cities such as Bismarck.
People there are following some of the same footprints walked by
the Corps of Discovery.
week, I went to Bismarck, Hurdsfield and Velva, N.D., to talk to
students about the American Indian perspective of that historic
journey. Most of the lessons the students are learning are based
on the journals of Lewis and Clark and from a non-Indian perspective.
In my talks, I tried to give the other point of view.
is something energizing about talking with young people, especially
kindergartners and first-graders. They are wide-open to new ideas
and will ask the most pointed questions.
classes ranged from kindergarten to sixth grade. What I hoped would
happen is that in their minds, they would stand on the cliffs above
the Missouri River among the earth lodges and watch Lewis and Clark's
crew paddling upriver in their three boats. I wanted the children
to see things from the Indian point of view of 200 years ago.
knew their lessons well. They had studied and were interested in
everything from what happened to Lewis and Clark after they returned
from their historic journey to the name of Sakakawea's son.
have read Lewis and Clark's journals in sections and cover to cover
several times, because I've also worked on the history of the Arikara
or Sahnish people. Lewis and Clark stopped at the Arikara villages
for a few days before they moved on to the Mandan and Hidatsa (called
Gros Ventre) villages.
was important to me that the children understand that the journals'
sometimes derogatory remarks about Indians had another side. As
the Indian people stood and watched the crew come up the river,
surely some of the young children ran and hid behind their mothers
in terror at the sight of the white men.
was a group of travelers with white or sunburnt red skin. Those
Indian children would have grown up around people with mostly brown
skin, although there were some white traders who lived with the
of the young children never had seen people with hair on their faces
such as beards or mustaches. In some of the oral traditions, it
is said they thought the crew might be related to animals because
of their hairy faces. Red and blond hair was, of course, unusual
to people who have straight black hair. The youngsters didn't quiet
see that until I told them to stand on the shore and see the crew
with green or purple hair. They laughed and giggled.
spoke mostly about the Arikara (as they called us then), the Mandan
and the Hidatsa because I know them best.
told the students that the tribes traded with Lewis and Clark. The
explorers gave the tribes small mirrors, beads, kettles and the
like; the tribes traded furs and food. The tribes were good farmers
who raised vegetables such as corn, squash, pumpkins, watermelons,
sunflowers and other produce that Lewis and Clark never had tasted.
The crew came out ahead in the transactions, I believe.
was important to me that the children understand that there is more
than one point of view; for example, while Lewis and Clark's crew
saw "savages," the Indian people saw the same. I wanted
the students to see the story while standing in the Indians' moccasins.
and Clark weren't as destructive as other traders and explorers.
Still, their perspective that Native people were just a cut above
uncivilized was common among those who came up the river.
for me, it was important to leave the students with the thought
that we need to look beyond skin color. A person is more than their
color. We have a spirit. It is important than we respect all people
because we all are related.
children were good listeners. I give credit also to the staff and
teachers who wanted their young people to hear about Lewis and Clark
from that other perspective.