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Few Indians will be celebrating Lewis and Clark Commemoration

Published on The Progressive (http://progressive.org)

Few Indians will be celebrating Lewis and Clark Commemoration
By Mary Annette Pember
October 18, 2004

The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration essentially celebrates discovery by conquest, and as a Native woman, it sticks in my craw. Native peoples did not benefit from the Lewis and Clark expedition. In fact, it signaled the beginning of genocide for us. This is not an occasion for celebration in Indian country.

I do not laud the group of history buffs, clad in 19th-century garb, who are retracing the steps of Lewis and Clark. These voyageurs began in Missouri in August and will reach Bismarck, N.D., on Nov. 4, where they intend to winter over before continuing along the trail in the spring.

Nor do I rejoice in the National Park Service-sponsored Lewis and Clark Visitor and Interpretive Centers that dot the trail. These are beautiful monuments to modern museum science and design. The buildings and grounds are immaculate with large bathrooms and parking lots. The gift shops sell Meriwether Lewis and William Clark books, CDs and all manner of themed items, including dolls and candy.

But these centers do not sufficiently document the suffering that Native Americans faced after Lewis and Clark. The mass murder, the expropriation of land, the wiping out of cultures -- all of these untidy facts get short shrift.

On top of that, these exhibits give the impression that the real Indians are dead, right along with Lewis and Clark. Much of the mainstream Lewis and Clark experience feeds the notion that Indians are picturesque denizens of a long gone past.

The Indian culture, history, geography and stories of the land west of the Mississippi are rich and diverse. What a terrible loss that these stories are not fully represented, despite the fact that 40 tribes were included in the Circle of Tribal Advisors that the National Park Service assembled for its Lewis and Clark Journey of Discovery.

Instead, almost the entire focus is on the original voyage itself. It's as though only one thread in a beautifully complex tapestry has been pulled out and displayed to represent an entire work of art.

I spoke to an expedition re-enactor in Sioux City, Iowa, at the local Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. He was defensive when we asked about the lack of native people participating in these events. He informed us that Indians were welcome to join them if they wanted, but he added he would "rather be historically accurate than politically correct."

Though he was sitting virtually in the heart of Indian country, he seemed to know nothing about the tribes encountered by the expedition. He said he thought the explorers met with a group called, the "Assy-bony." Presumably, he was referring to the nearby Assiniboine Sioux, alive and well in North and South Dakota.

The 1804 Lewis and Clark expedition was largely a business venture, cloaked in high-minded science. Thomas Jefferson hoped to beat the French and English in establishing a quick means to transport America's goods to the West Coast, ensuring more customers for U.S. businesses.

These Western business ventures spelled the beginning of a holocaust in Indian country. It is estimated that at the time of the first European contact in the late 15th century, there were more than 10 million native people living in what is now the United States. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were fewer than 230,000 remaining. Much of the decimation occurred after the "Journey of Discovery."

Do native people have anything to truly celebrate during this commemoration? Perhaps a Nez Perce elder said it best. "Yes, we can celebrate that we are still here; We can still sing our songs, speak our language and teach our children."

Mary Annette Pember, Red Cliff Ojibwe, is past president of the Native American Journalists Association. She is currently lives and works as an independent journalist in Cincinnati. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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