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Many Native Americans Have Decidedly Different View of Lewis & Clark Expedition - 2004-09-12

Two hundred years ago this summer, U.S. Army Captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River. Their job was to explore the United States' newest addition of land, known as the Louisiana Purchase. Their journey is often portrayed in heroic terms: Lewis and Clark as intrepid adventurers - pioneers of Manifest Destiny, the mindset that drove white settlement of the West. But the descendents of the more than 100 American Indian tribes Lewis and Clark encountered along the way have very different and often mixed feelings about remembering the historic expedition.

People traveling the Lewis and Clark Trail through the Dakotas aren't exactly made to feel welcome at the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. A sign outside the tourist office reads: "If it's tourist season, how come we can't shoot them?"

"We welcome everybody within our terms," says LaDonna Brave Bull, who manages tourism for the tribe. Looking out across the wide Missouri River, she says she can't understand the fascination with Lewis and Clark. "They didn't do anything. They came up the river on a little boat. They didn't know where they were going. They had no knowledge of the country. To us, they were like these people wandering around in the wilderness lost," she says.

Mrs. Brave Bull wishes those wandering explorers didn't loom so large in her history. Lewis and Clark came famously close to battling her ancestors, the Teton Sioux, just down the river from here. Captain Clark later called the Tetons "vile miscreants" of the savage race. Mrs. Brave Bull takes offense at those words and the ensuing history: the white settlement and government policies that confined her nomadic tribe to reservations and contributed to the disappearance of dozens of other tribes.

She puts the blame squarely on Lewis and Clark. "Because of them, it changed our people forever. I don't know how a person could look at the messengers of death as heroes," she says.

With such hard feelings widespread throughout the tribe, the Standing Rock Sioux are only half-heartedly taking part in the Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration. Plans for an interpretive center are still in the works, even though the anniversary of the explorers' trek through here is just a few weeks away (October 8).

But some American Indians say tribes like the Standing Rock are squandering a rare opportunity.

"We have a huge story with Lewis and Clark, or I should say: Lewis and Clark have a big story with us," says Amy Mossett, the tribal involvement coordinator for the national Bicentennial Council. The Mandan-Hidatsa woman says tribes should be jumping at the chance to tell their side of the story to the thousands of people following the trail. "Those tribes that Lewis and Clark said the worst things about, are the tribes that have to make the greatest effort to re-teach all that erroneous kind of interpretation of their culture that was recorded by Lewis and Clark."

So far, two-thirds of the surviving tribes the explorers met on their journey have at least signed up to be part of the commemoration. It's made a difference. The emphasis on the Native narrative can be heard in the council's TV ads.

"Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark set out to discover an all-water route to the Pacific. But what they really discovered were 58 hospitable nations who could have ended their journey at any time, but saved it instead."

But for many of those tribes, issues like poverty, unemployment and gaming tend to rank higher than history in their priorities.

It's bingo night on the Lower Brule Indian Reservation, which stretches along 130 kilometers of Missouri River shoreline in central South Dakota. This casino is one of the reservation's few employers. During a break between games, tribal member Kay Gourneau rearranges bingo cards with fingers stained green from her dauber. She says 70 percent unemployment on the reservation is a pressing issue. Remembering Lewis and Clark is not. "We can't go back and live on the Plains and follow the buffalo, that's over! So you know you've got to do what you can to try to get our children educated, so they can compete in the world we live in now," she says.

Still, bicentennial organizers warn the tribes that their lack of involvement could mean they forfeit their history to the white settlers who took over their land.

Every day, up to 600 people come here, to the reconstruction of Fort Mandan, in central North Dakota. This is where the Corps of Discovery spent its first winter, close to where the Missouri River breaks west toward Montana. In the blacksmith's room, re-enactor Dick Parish heaves on a rope to flex the bellows.

Then he pulls one of his creations from the wall: a barbed war club. Mr. Parish says the explorers forged something similar to this gruesome weapon to trade with the local Mandan tribe for vegetables. "It could have been totally ceremonial. Yet at the same time you must admit that anybody running after you on a horse waving this thing in the air headed right straight for your body is going to give you a great amount of concern," he says.

If American Indians were telling this story, they might emphasize instead the goodwill the Mandans showed by feeding the expedition. Indeed, historians say the Corps of Discovery could not have survived the winter here without tribal help.

Two hundred kilometers upstream is the Fort Berthold Reservation, the contemporary home of the Mandan Indians. Tribal member and bicentennial council official - Amy Mossett is watering her traditional garden.

She grows beans and corn together in the same rows. That way the tall corn stalks are buttressed against the stiff prairie winds. She says this is how her ancestors grew the corn they gave to Lewis and Clark. "One of the things I have told tribes along the trail is: we do have something to celebrate. During the bicentennial we can celebrate the fact that we survived Lewis and Clark. And everything they stood for. And every reason they came out here for. And everything that happened after Lewis and Clark, we survived it all," she says.

Mrs. Mossett plans to keep trying to get tribes to play a bigger role in the commemoration. There's still time it runs through 2006. She hopes that when tribes do tell their stories, it will secure American Indian voices in the narrative for the next 200 years.