"Commemoration a Chance to Tell Different Stories"
By Fred Tasker, Knight Ridder News Service,
Salt Lake Tribune, January 26, 2003
BLACKFEET RESERVATION, Mont. -- As America nears the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, American Indian leaders are demanding a major reassessment of how the country views its heroes and its history.
In the white consciousness, the daring trek rivals that of Christopher Columbus. The two leaders and their 31-member "Corps of Discovery" opened up the American West, created a heroic, defining myth and started to sketch the ultimate shape, the Manifest Destiny of a fledgling nation.
But to American Indians who had lived on those rivers, plains and mountains for 10,000 years it was the beginning of something not far short of holocaust.
Within months settlers were pouring into their native lands bringing smallpox, scarlet fever and liquor. Within years they were slaughtering the buffalo, the tribes' chief source of food, clothing and shelter. Within decades they had decimated Indian populations and pushed the survivors onto hardscrabble reservations where many have failed to prosper to this day.
American Indians, who numbered more than 10 million when European settlers arrived, could count only 250,000 by 1900 -- recovering since to about 2 million.
Revisionist History? "Americans have never been taught proper history," says Ronald McNeil, great-great-great grandson of Sioux Chief Sitting Bull and president of Sitting Bull Community College in Fort Yates, S.D. "We need to use this opportunity to tell the story of how the land was taken from us, how our culture was taken, our language -- why we're in the condition we are today."
"It's not revisionist history," says Darrell Kipp, Harvard-trained historian of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana. "It's setting the record straight."
Their view resounds among the 54 tribes -- from the Sioux in the Dakotas to the Blackfeet in Montana to the Chinook on the Pacific Coast -- that came in contact with Lewis and Clark during their 4,100-mile, 28-month journey from St. Louis to the Pacific and back in 1804-06.
Still, the tribes recognize that the 35 million visitors expected on the Lewis & Clark Historical Trail during the three years of the bicentennial commemoration could be a big boost to their tourism.
"We can't ignore that kind of economic benefit," says Ben Sherman, a Lakota Sioux and president of the Western American Indian Chamber of Commerce in Denver.
It left them in a dilemma: protest the events or profit from them?
They chose a little of each. Tribal leaders have won prominent places on the commissions planning bicentennial events and set up university seminars at which tribal scholars will voice their views. At the same time they are building replicas of the villages that Lewis and Clark visited to snag tourist dollars and tell their side of the story.
The American Indian groups demanded that the National Council of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, the volunteer group coordinating events, change the bicentennial's official designation from "celebration" to "commemoration."
Says Sherman: "Jefferson ended up with a policy of Indian removal, displacement and extermination. How can we celebrate this?"
They won the point.
The council also put together a 30-member Circle of Tribal Advisers to promote Indian participation in the bicentennial -- both out of conviction and a desire to avoid the kinds of protests that met 1992 ceremonies marking the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage.
Dollars and Sense: That the tribes are fighting for dollars and understanding can be seen in New Town, N.D. The Three Affiliated Tribes there -- Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara -- are building an $11-million cultural heritage center and a replica of the old Mandan village where Lewis and Clark spent the frigid first winter of their trip in 1804-05.
When it opens this summer, tourists can stay overnight in an earthen lodge, among other activities.
And they can listen to folk lectures by Amy Mossett, a Mandan/Hidatsa storyteller who spent 15 years studying the oral history of Sacagawea, the 16-year-old Shoshone girl who served as interpreter for Lewis and Clark. Dressed as Sacagawea, Mossett will explain that the interpreter never was a Mandan slave, as she is portrayed in history books.
"No one was ever kidnapped and enslaved in the Hidatsa culture," Mossett will tell them. "We went to war and took captives, who sometimes were absorbed into tribes."
In Browning, Mont., leaders of the Blackfeet Tribe are telling their side of the story in a total-immersion elementary school, where students are taught about their heritage in the Blackfeet language.
They hear how the tribe, which originally inhabited a large area around Montana, was relocated against its will to this remote location on the Canadian border. They learn of the 1870 Massacre on the Marias River, in which U.S. Army troops pursuing murderers mistakenly attacked an innocent Blackfeet village.
Children in Arthur Westwolf's history class hear two sharply divergent versions of their tribe's fatal run-in with the Lewis & Clark Expedition 200 years ago.
From the history books, Westwolf tells them Lewis and one of his men killed two Blackfeet boys in 1806 because they tried to steal the explorers' rifles.
Then he invites tribal elders to give their oral history version -- a much more complicated tale of young boys stealing into an enemy camp in an ancient ritual that had little to do with thievery and much to do with courage, honor and coming-of-age.
"According to our oral history, those two boys were doing what they were supposed to," says Blackfeet spokeswoman Susan Weber. "It was a way of gaining honor in battle," she says.
"We're not vindictive," says Kipp, the Blackfeet historian. "But we're looking for a renegotiation of reality. The tribes have been exploited, placed in difficult positions. Today we seek self-reliance, self-management. We're asking to correct wrongs."
"Blackfeet recollections differ from those recorded in Lewis' journal"
By Eric Newhouse, Great Falls Tribune,
April 23, 2003
The Blackfeet Nation certainly hasn't forgotten its encounter with Capt. Meriwether Lewis in the summer of 1806.
"Lewis and Clark came from a culture based on war and encountered a very peaceful people," tribal elder G.G. Kipp told the Blackfeet Community College Native American Scholars Program.
"But they wrote the history books saying we were brutal and warlike so they could justify what they did to us," he said.
According to Blackfeet oral histories, Kipp said, Lewis and his party ran into a group of young boys from the Skunk Band who were herding horses back to camp from a previous foray.
"They stayed with them and gambled with them," he said. "There is a story of a race. In the morning, they went to part company and the Indians took what they had won. "That was it," said Kipp. "That's when they were killed."
A newspaper story dating back to 1919 recounts a Blackfeet version much more consistent with Lewis' journal.
In it, George Bird Grinnell, known as one of the fathers of Glacier National Park, recounted an interview he had conducted in 1895 with a Blackfeet chief called Wolf Calf, who was then 102 years old.
When Wolf Calf was 13 years old, said Grinnell, he was present at the fight scene. The Blackfeet met the white men in friendly fashion. The chief directed the young men to try to steal some of their things, according to Wolf Calf.
They did so early the next morning, and the white men killed the first Indian with their big knives, he said.
Wolf Calf then said one of the white men -- apparently their chief -- chased another Indian boy and shot him with a pistol, killing him.
The old chief located the fight scene as on the hill immediately south of Birch Creek, where the town of Robare then stood in Teton County.
"In reply to an inquiry as to any attempt to pursue Lewis' party, Wolf Calf declared that the Indians were badly frightened, that they were bitterly hostile to the whites after the incident and ashamed because they had not killed all the white men. He said, however, that their dread of the white men's guns was such that they hurried away north, while Lewis and his men fled south," according to the newspaper account.
Darrell Robes Kipp, director of the Piegan Institute in Browning, noted that one of the boys who was killed, Calf Looking, was 13.
"These were boys who were horse herders," he said. "They weren't warriors."
By comparison, he noted, Lewis and his party were warriors.
"By the amount of weaponry they carried, they must have looked like Rambo to a couple of young boys who had only bows and arrows."
The ultimate insult, said Darrell Kipp, was that Lewis deliberately left a peace medal around the neck of one of the dead Indian boys.
"Since they didn't understand what the medal meant, it would have seemed that Lewis was counting coup on them. It would have been viewed as a form of scalping," he said. The peace medal would not have been buried with Calf Looking, he added.
"That would have been considered taboo," said Darrell Kipp. "They would have thrown the medal away or destroyed it."
The result of that encounter, said Kipp, was that the Blackfeet closed their territory to all whites for the next 80 years, attacking and killing any intruders they could find within their borders.
Attitudes have mellowed since, though. "Our tribal government has decided to support the bicentennial," said spokesman George Heavy Runner. "It's like trying to kill one bird with two stones. "It will allow us to portray our culture, capture some of the tourism dollars and promote future tourism," he added.
As a result, the tribe sent a delegation to Monticello in January to attend the Signature Event opening the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. "We met a grandson of Captain Clark, shook his hand and said, 'We're still here, and we hope this encounter won't be as violent as the one 200 years ago" said Heavy Runner.
Already in Browning is the Museum of the Plains Indians, which interprets the Native American culture and lifestyle. But the tribe also is planning to take over the late Bob Scriver's art studio and gallery, which will be turned into a museum of the Blackfeet Nation.
Jay St. Goddard, tribal chairman, said the tribe plans to build an interpretive center, complete with a herd of buffalo, just west of Browning. "Lewis and Clark were the rise and fall of Indian country, but we're in a new world today," said St. Goddard. "We need to find a way to funnel their tourism dollars into our pockets of poverty."