Bicentennial opens path for cultural healing

By DEAN BAKER, Columbian staff writer

November 6, 2000

A new day of relations between American Indians and non-Indians is dawning, while some resistance still lingers as planning intensifies for the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark’s expedition West.

Centuries of cultural conflict still fuel Indian-white mistrust, even as hundreds of millions of dollars are pumped into a three-year multicultural observance. The old anger sometimes flares when Indians speak of their lost heritage or when whites whisper resentfully at back tables at planning conferences.

At the same time, 9 million to 20 million tourists are expected to show up along the 3,700-mile trail during the bicentennial from 2003-2006. Lewis and Clark are starting to grab the nation’s attention. There’s much to be learned and tourism money to be made, and whites and Indians are in this together.

The key is in opening up discussion and giving full weight to all local stories Indian and non-Indian national bicentennial leaders agree.

“This Lewis and Clark story is the American story that needs to be told right now,” said Jeffrey Olson of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Association, based in Bismarck, N.D. “Make an effort at each site to tell the local stories. It’s not the big capital expense that is important, it’s the stories.”

At Washougal, local organizer Roger Daniels agreed. “We want to celebrate the strong Native American element in our history,” he said.

So it’s the Chinook Indian woman White Wing, who lived in Washougal through the entire 19th century, who becomes important, Daniels said, along with white settler David Parker and black settler George Washington Bush. Also important is the Lewis and Clark provision campsite off Washougal’s 32nd Street, where the explorers spent six days, March 31 to April 5, 1806.

Nationally, the bicentennial effort is huge and will include major capital expenses: 375 projects such as visitors centers, museums, art, performances, tours and site improvements costing $400 million in 11 states. There’ll be a historical roadshow traveling like a circus the length of the route, and commemorative landings made by the modern amphibious U.S. Army on historic dates on town beaches along the Missouri and Columbia rivers.

Leaders in some towns seemed less than enthusiastic about the Army’s plans, but they shrugged them off as merely an idea.

In this area, besides Washougal’s plans and a Ridgefield visitors center drive under way to mark the ancient Indian village of Cathlapotle, there will other commemorative events.

There’ll be a push, for example, to retrieve and display Indian petroglyphs saved but then locked away in a warehouse when The Dalles Dam was built in 1957.

And already under way is an effort to reclaim a grass-choked Lewis and Clark site along the Columbia River at The Dalles, Ore., by seeding native plants such as rabbit brush, yarrow and June grass.

In Clark County, there’ll also be recognition for three other Lewis and Clark camps: on Government Island, near Fort Vancouver and near the modern Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad Bridge.

Community leaders are getting deeply involved.

Take a look.

Susan Huntington, a smiling middle-aged white woman who is the Chamber of Commerce executive in The Dalles, danced to American Indian drums at a bicentennial planning session staged in The Dalles a few days ago. Her partner was short, solemn, aging Wasco Chief Nelson Wallulatum, who was wearing a headdress and a brightly painted vest, throwing his hands in the air and singing with a spinning, stomping, sweating troupe of young dancers wearing feathers and leather.

Some scorn Indians
A mutter of disapproval from the back of the room was barely audible. It was nearly drowned out by applause from 100 white and Indian leaders from across the United States who had come together at The Dalles to plan the bicentennial.

“This region has nearly 10,000 years of history,” said The Dalles Mayor Robb Van Cleave, who also danced with the Indians. “It is this history that we must remember, honor and celebrate.”

Huntington, Van Cleve and Wallulatum were trying to build a cultural bridge.

They may fail yet because deep Indian anger lingers over many generations of lost lives, lands and culture. Some whites are put off by so much attention to American Indians.

But both cultures are trying.

The central idea is that both Indians and whites will tell their local stories from Thomas Jefferson’s home in Monticello, Va., to Long Beach, Wash., where the Corps of Discovery walked along the Pacific Ocean.

Why so much Indian emphasis?

Because Indians showed Lewis and Clark how to reach across the cultural divide, said 58-year-old black sculptor Porter Williams, of Valley City, S.D., who came to the meeting in The Dalles dressed as Capt. William Clark’s slave, York.

“If it weren’t for the Indian people, the Lewis and Clark expedition would have been over from the beginning,” said Williams. Tribes repeatedly saved the explorers’ lives.

Tribal generosity was abused, he said. Now, it’s payback time.

The Indian and white bicentennial leaders nodded together.

But, ominously, at a table in the back of the room, a woman from the Washington coast muttered a different view.

“Don’t quote me or put this in the newspaper,” she said. “But I don’t want to be reminded about the wrongs done to Indians every time I think of Lewis and Clark. Tell me true, wouldn’t the English, the French or the Spanish have done the same thing to the Indians if the Americans hadn’t come West? Wasn’t it bound to happen?”

The leaders didn’t hear those questions, and they agreed to build a bridge.

“Columbus was a disaster,” David Nicandri, executive director of the Washington Historical Society, told the group. He recalled massive American Indian protests over the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the sea captain’s arrival in America in 1492. “There was a risk that Lewis and Clark would be the same.”

Planners wanted to make sure this observance is entirely different.

Indians lead planning
A decision was made to bring American Indians in early on the planning, and to be culturally astute enough to make the observance of Lewis and Clark’s voyage a “commemoration,” never a “celebration” because in many cases it led to Indian massacres, theft of Indian land and destruction of Indian cultures.

Indians didn’t just dance and drum at the conference. They led.

“We’re talking about an unfinished revolution when we talk about the opportunities in Lewis and Clark,” said Louie Pitt, director of government affairs for the Warm Springs Reservation.

“My mother was a Wy’am, who lived right here on the river. My father was a Yakama. This country all around The Dalles is all Indian country.”

Tempering his anger, Pitt described himself as “a ’60s person,” who especially loved the Bob Dylan song, “The cannons were fired and the Indians died …”

“I’ve studied Jefferson and tried to be calm as a paper Indian can be an Indian who deals in paperwork and laws,” he said. “But we must remember that we Indians are protecting place; the land has its rhythms, and there is no such thing as a ‘managed forest.'”

He asked that Indian thought be incorporated into a renewed America.

“This is a joint effort between two kinds of cultures and two kinds of people,” said Allen Pinkham, a Nez Perce and tribal liaison for the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council in Portland. “We are looking for what it is that makes us different and what makes us the same.”

“We want whole new eyes for our schoolchildren,” said Keith Peterson, coordinator of the Idaho Lewis and Clark Bicentennial group. Let children embrace the full story of the expedition and what it meant for all cultures, he said. Let no holds be barred.

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