Bicentennial bash is more than a party for tribes

  • Gerard Baker, a Hidatsa Indian and superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial, put together the Corps of Discovery II to travel the Lewis and Clark Trail

    National Park Service
  • Roberta Conner, Umatilla tribal member

  • Geoff O'Gara

    Mike McClure

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "The living, breathing natives who made Lewis and Clark."

Four years ago, the late historian Steven Ambrose took his rawhide-tassel jacket on a lecture swing through the Western states, warning of "crowds beyond any of our imagining" when the bicentennial of the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition got under way. State tourism agencies from St. Louis to Oregon rejoiced. But Indian tribes — cited in numerous surveys as at the very top of tourists’ "must-see" lists — were somewhat less eager to embrace the promised tourism windfall on the historic occasion.

When the Corps of Discovery first came through 200 years ago, the tribes gave it food, hospitality and directions. If the Indians had been less friendly — if the Nez Perce, for example, had rebuffed or killed the emaciated white men who stumbled out of the Rockies in 1805 — perhaps the onslaught of disease, war and fences that followed, destroying so many Indian lives in the West, might have been slowed, or even deflected.

So perhaps we can sympathize with the descendents of the Lakota, Chinook and other tribes along the route, who come off today as slightly reluctant hosts. Their take on L&C is a little different from Ambrose’s heroic narrative in Undaunted Courage, or the majestic helicopter swoops in Ken Burns’ documentary on the expedition. President Thomas Jefferson sent the expedition out to map, gather naturalist observations, foster trade with the Indians, and trump Great Britain’s claims to the Northwest — as if European imperial powers were the only ones with a claim. But to many of the Indians they met, Lewis and Clark were "just two individuals who were lost and came through our territory — a couple of snots, talking real tough," says Louie Pitt, a member of the Wasco Tribe on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Oregon.

Now, that should wake up the sleepy busload of senior citizens just in from Dubuque. "And after you’ve heard our side of the story, folks, this way to the casino!"

The tidal wave of travelers predicted by Ambrose has yet to materialize, but there’s a steady stream of fiftyish history buffs and car-camping families traveling to L&C sites in the West. According to a "Tribal Tourism Toolkit" put out by the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, these mostly older, mostly car-driving travelers want history, culture and nature — a West of the imagination — and the best place to find it, they figure, is on reservations, bypassed by modernity.

But visitors won’t see buffalo robes on the Plains, or the brimming-with-life tepee villages, or the exuberant songs and dances after a successful hunt. They’ll find a few fine museums, and perhaps a powwow now and then, but they’ll also see trailers and poverty and averted faces. And if you’re looking in Indian Country for well-appointed motel rooms and fine wine with your dinner — another goal of today’s travelers, according to studies — you’ll likely have to stay at a casino resort.

Ambrose warned of the tourist onslaught four years ago, because he knew most of the little mountain communities, historic sites and Indian reservations were unprepared. Campgrounds in the White Cliffs stretch of the Missouri River were short on toilets. The dirt road over Lemhi Pass between Montana and Idaho had no room for tour buses to turn around. Indian reservations, in particular, lacked most of the accommodations, infrastructure and interpretation travelers would seek.

But the federal government had a plan.

"This time, it’s about the tribes," declared Gerard Baker, a towering, energetic Hidatsa Indian who put together the Corps of Discovery II for the National Park Service. The idea was to create a traveling tent show like the 19th century Chatauqua circuit, with Native voices at every stop to tell a more rounded version of the expedition’s story. Baker’s bicentennial would broaden the nation’s perspective on the course of empire: There would be a "tent of many voices" at officially sanctioned "signature events," and federal money, too. Tribes would get funding for new visitor centers, hospitality training and free publicity.

It sounded too good to be true. And it was — at least, the money part was, as I found when I visited reservations along the Western part of the Lewis and Clark route earlier this year. The $30 million Baker was looking for from the government never fully materialized, no surprise to tribal leaders. The National Council for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial floundered at first, and much of the funding went to non-Indian events and exhibits. But Baker persisted, tracking down equipment donations and foundation support, and a Council of Tribal Advisors drew Indian leaders into the tent. The traveling show opened at Monticello — Thomas Jefferson's home outside Charlottesville, Va. — earlier this year, and has begun following the expedition route across the country, with signature events featuring lectures, music, re-enactments and exhibits. Hundreds of thousands attended in Virginia, Illinois and St. Louis; as the show moves West, where events will be hosted by reservations like Fort Berthold in North Dakota and the Nez Perce in Idaho, no one knows how many will attend.

Baker, who is now superintendent at Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota, says his mission was less about money than about telling the story correctly, by getting tribal representatives to give their perspective on the expedition at every stop. "We downsized it to about half of what it might have been. But what the public sees is an excellent product, and we got the tribes involved," Baker says.

Involved, maybe, but not always enthused. Alan Pinkham of the Nez Perce, who was on the bicentennial council when I talked to him in 2001, said: "We don’t want a thousand tourists each picking up a rock and taking it home." One member of the Standing Rock Sioux, a tribe that has seen its ancient villages along the Missouri River looted by artifact hunters, called Baker "a government spy with braids." But others saw an economic opportunity, and found rationales for participating.

Roberta Conner, a member of the Umatilla Tribe in Central Oregon, was fully aware that tribes were being asked "to commemorate the advent of our demise" during the bicentennial. Her own tribe, which lived on the upper Columbia River in 1805, was described in the explorers’ journals as "fearful" and "agitated." But she wanted to use the event as a hook to "invite folks in for Lewis and Clark, but make sure it’s not all they leave with." The problem for many tribes is that folks in faraway states — 22 of the states have no resident Indian tribes — don’t even know they still exist. That could undermine national understanding and support for the treaty and trust relationships essential to Indian survival in today’s world.

During the buildup to the bicentennial, Conner, who now runs the tribe’s impressive Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, researched the period through stories from elders of the three tribes on the reservation — the Umatilla, the Cayuse and the Walla Walla. She learned, she says, that 200 years ago, "We lived in abundance, not scarcity." She wasn’t participating in the Lewis and Clark commemoration just for the tourists — she was doing it for Indian kids, who know only the more recent times of poverty and despair, she told me with her voice cracking.

"We’re still trying to get people to understand why this isn’t just a party," says Conner. "We want a national dialogue about what’s happened over the last 200 years, and how the next 200 should be different."

Promoters who wonder why tribes would hesitate to embrace the tourism opportunities of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial just need to consider the tribes’ experiences over the last two centuries. Resources such as minerals and water have often been excised from reservations, or squandered by U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs mismanagement. Industries and jobs have gone to non-Indian neighbors. Tribes are left with marginal enterprises and legal loopholes, like tax-free cigarettes or gambling compacts, which sometimes conflict with traditional values.

"I’m not a big fan of casinos myself," says Louie Pitt, at Warm Springs. "It’s a necessary evil, like cutting trees down."

With that ambivalence, the less smoky and addictive forms of tourism — the prospect of visitors with cultural, outdoor and historic interests — might seem more attractive to tribes as a way of growing their economies, even if the less-than-beloved Lewis and Clark come as part of the package.

But tribes have survived against all odds in part because of the closed cocoon of reservation life, where language and tradition are often withheld like priestly secrets from the dominant culture. And tribes know what all of us in rural Western towns know about the "new" economy of recreation and tourism: It’s mostly seasonal and low-wage, and sometimes it’s demeaning.

In fact, Indians know a lot more than they’re generally given credit for about economic development. If you talk to council members, planners and other officials on reservations, you find a savvy cadre with well-processed data, taking aim at the future. Despite the visible poverty on many reservations, tribal leaders have taken income from timber, oil and gas, reparations and other sources and invested in studies to guide them toward new economies.

On visits this year to reservations along the Lewis and Clark route, I found long-range planning efforts leading to an array of new enterprises: The Nez Perce are breeding their own line of high-quality horses similar to the Appaloosas of their ancestors; the Blackfeet in Montana are taking advantage of their mountainous environment with wind energy projects; the Warm Springs Tribe is guiding kayakers from its Kah-Nee-Tah resort; and the tiny Makah Reservation on the Olympic Peninsula is developing an innovative wave energy generating station offshore.

The tribes work with consultants and, despite their urgent need to solve immediate problems, they proceed with caution. "We don’t have the luxury of most Americans to mess up a place and move on," says Louie Pitt.

The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, to many of these tribes, is just a stepping stone, another way of generating income and outside interest, so they can move ahead with more ambitious, and suitable, projects. At the same time, it’s also an opportunity to shed the old cloaks of invisibility and secrecy that no longer serve the tribes.

"The bicentennial helps with recognition, spreading the word that we are still here, our culture survives," says Gary Johnson, chairman of the Chinook Tribe, the people who hosted the Corps of Discovery at the mouth of the Columbia. The Chinook are after much bigger game than tourists or media play. They are trying to regain federal recognition, an important designation for a tribe, because it leads to participation in various programs for housing, education, health services and, yes, economic development.

The tribe got its wish in the last days of the Clinton administration. But in 2003, just days after President George W. Bush had invited the Chinook to a White House bicentennial dinner, his Interior Department reversed course, ruling that the tribe didn’t meet the criteria for recognition (HCN, 8/19/02: Chinook tribe loses recognition). The tribe hasn’t given up: It’s trying to get help from Congress, and watching the fall election for signs of change. In the meantime, Gary Johnson’s son has carved one of the long, dugout Chinook canoes that Lewis had admired in his journal; it’s intended for Fort Clatsop National Memorial Park.

The Chinook experience is a reminder that "signature events" and "tents of many voices" aren’t enough to bring Indian tribes back to the "nation to nation" status they once held, when Lewis and Clark first arrived. Most Indians are not satisfied to be merely entertainers or interpreters for wealthy white tourists. The question is whether they can reap some benefits from the bicentennial by deliberately re-creating the hospitality they showed spontaneously 200 years ago — while retaining their own higher goals, their search for pride and identity.

"The bicentennial has brought us allies and friends we wouldn’t have had otherwise," says Roberta Conner. "But we’re still battling to get that fundamental dialogue, and to talk about critical issues like cultural resource protection, and habitat restoration. People are worrying about signage and porta-potties. But it’s a beginning."

On the way home from my summer road trip, I drove back along the Lewis and Clark route from the mouth of the Columbia to Idaho, following the Clearwater River through the Nez Perce Reservation toward Lolo Pass. Along the river, I stopped at an attractive park and hiked to a huge rock, which the Nez Perce believe to be the hardened heart of a legendary monster. Driving again, I passed a red pickup by the roadside, with a hand-lettered sign: "SALMON 4 SALE." Two hundred years ago, the Nez Perce made a gift of fish to the starving explorers of the Corps of Discovery. As Conner asks: How will the next 200 years be different?

Geoff O’Gara is a documentary filmmaker, author and former HCN editor, based in Lander, Wyoming.

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