Commemorate or celebrate?

  • Paul Larmer

 

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 shameful."

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 Manifest Destiny.

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 together.

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.

This 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 order.

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