Last week, as I finished pulling together the essays on Lewis and Clark for this issue of the paper, a press release crossed my desk from the National Council for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. "Not Semantics: Commemorate vs. Celebrate," read the headline.
The release quoted council vice president
Roberta Conner, an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of
the Walla Walla, Cayuse and Umatilla: "Indian people are not
celebrating the Bicentennial. For us, the idea of celebrating the
harbingers of what would become genocide is offensive and
Conner, who appears in two of the essays in
this issue, had a point. To celebrate Lewis and Clark as the heroes
who helped "tame" the North American continent for white settlers
would be an insult not only to Indians, but to anyone who has
studied the history of this continent. The Lewis and Clark
expedition marked the beginning of a very sad chapter for Native
Americans and a host of other people caught up in the swirl of
Still, the opening lines of the release
made me uneasy. It would be all too easy to turn Lewis and Clark
into villains and the bicentennial into a politically correct,
finger-pointing roast of white America. This approach, though
satisfying to some, will pull people apart rather than bring them
Fortunately, that is not the intention of the
council, which has put together the events marking the bicentennial
over the next two years. As the release goes on to state, the
council wants to commemorate — not celebrate — Lewis
and Clark and the tribes by taking a clear-eyed look at the Corps
of Discovery and by putting the expedition into historical context.
That, in a nutshell, is what we have tried to do in this
issue. Our four essayists don’t shy away from the painful
realities of post-Lewis and Clark America. But they do find signs
of hope in the resilience and innovations of the Native American
tribes that came before and after Lewis and Clark.
more nuanced reading of history can easily get lost in the hype of
a national event. Yet it is essential if we are to learn the deeper
lessons of the past.
As the American West endures the
latest waves of change, it is comforting to know that the region
and its people have gone through dramatic upheavals before and
found ways to survive and even thrive. The bicentennial is our
invitation to fully embrace this heritage and then to move forward
as determinedly as the members of the Corps of Discovery did, to
make the West a better place for those who will journey after us.
If we accept this invitation, a celebration will be in