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We are the story, this time


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

I was barefoot, wearing pajama bottoms and a T-shirt, as I walked to the hotel lobby to buy a candy bar. I thought my work as a journalist was done, and I was looking forward to a small reward.

All week, I had shared the lobby with some of the nation’s leading historians, costume experts and die-hard scholars of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Charlottesville, Va., was filled with a who’s who list of history buffs mingling with state and tribal tourism groups.

I had just transmitted the last story for my newspaper about the first national event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the expedition. Like the 3,000 people who arrived at the back lawn of Thomas Jefferson’s home that Saturday in Virginia, I nearly froze and was exhausted by the day. But I was also exhilarated.

All week long, we sat through sessions on Lewis and Clark lore, literature and legend. And all through the week, we heard passionate talks by Indians and non-Indians who said that now was the time to complete America’s first story. Now was the time for everyone to hear and understand the missing Indian perspective from the many Indian nations whose stories are mostly untold.

As an American Indian journalist, I’d never seen a mainstream event embrace the Native view so strongly. This felt like a turning point, even history in the making.

Was I getting carried away, thinking that this could be the moment when educators and historians truly realized how much they have marginalized the Indian perspective in their teachings? My experience told me to be cautious. Even as a journalist in the early 1990s, I was discouraged from writing about Native events. The doings I knew to be important were brushed aside before editors could even comprehend their significance. Every Indian journalist in the mainstream knows this experience.

But this time, finally, the Indian leaders took their place alongside non-Indian leaders. Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, stressed the value of what happens when Natives are involved early in a project. It’s so different from the common experiences of the last 200 years, in which non-Indian leaders have most often used Indians as props for their projects so they could say the Indian perspective was at the table.

Not this time. As Roberta Conner of the Umatilla Tribe said, "We are the story.’’ Conner, the director of the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, helped define what this event meant to the Native: This is not a celebration, but a chance to get the Native story out before the world.

"We’re not just trying to say one thing," Conner said. "We’re trying to say there are many nations, many voices, many messages."

Conner fully expects that at some point someone will protest and label the tribes involved with the 200th anniversary as sellouts. It’s a risk she’s willing to take. "We learned a long time ago if you’re not at the table when negotiations take place, it’s very difficult to make your case,’’ Conner said. This week, we were at the table, and I knew the Indian voice was exploding out before the world. I had done my job to capture it in daily news stories. Change was in the air.

As I put my coins in the candy machine, I overheard a group of men talking. They were familiar faces I had seen all week, attending events, comparing notes.

"Did you all hear the message today?’’ asked a non-Native man. "It’s all about the women and the Indians. A white guy doesn’t stand a chance.’’ None of his peers disagreed or countered his views. I put my candy bar in my pocket. My throat tensed. I caught the eye of a fellow in the group and said, "I should put that in my news story.’’

The men froze, unsure if they should move or respond, like kids caught saying a four-letter word. I walked away.

My Snickers bar gave me little comfort that night. Despite the promise of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, it is still not reward time, and probably won’t be for many years to come. The Native stories of yesterday and today are still not getting out as they should.

But maybe I hoped for too much. At the Confluence of Cultures, an event held earlier this year at the University of Montana, Blackfeet historians gave their version of Lewis’ underplayed — and fatal — encounter with their ancestors. According to them, the Indians killed by the expedition were merely boys overwhelmed by the strangers. I’m still haunted by the image of Lewis putting a peace medal around the neck of one of the lifeless boys who’d been stabbed.

I expect most reporters will hedge when confronted with writing a version of history that paints Lewis as a boy killer. But if a few do not, and if their blunt stories cause people like the men in the lobby to wring their hands and share the spotlight, then the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial could be a true turning point.

Ready or not, here comes the rest of the story.

Rob McDonald is a reporter in Spokane, Wash., at The Spokesman-Review. He’s a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Salish and Kootenai in Western Montana. He can be reached at [email protected]