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Tribes Dubious About Lewis and Clark Celebration

Indians say they discovered the explorers, not the other way around. And their oral history differs from expedition journal.

May 04, 2003|Angie Wagner | Associated Press Writer

ON THE LEWIS AND CLARK TRAIL, Mont. — 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.

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