A turning point in American history was revisited earlier this month in Charlottesville, Virginia. A week long round of talks, exhibits and dramatic performances opened the bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark expedition, a journey of western exploration that took more than three years from conception to completion. The exposition, called "Jefferson's West," came to a climax with a ceremony at Monticello, the home of America's third president, Thomas Jefferson.
The Lewis and Clark Fife and Drum Corps helped launch the expedition bicentennial, evoking the music and pageantry of a young American nation. The musicians come from Saint Charles, Missouri, near where the journey originated. But they traveled east to Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello for the official opening of the commemoration.
"This was where it all started, at Monticello, in the mind of Thomas Jefferson," said Dayton Duncan, who helped host the opening ceremony. He's devoted much of his writing and filmmaking career to the Lewis and Clark expedition.
"I've compared it often to the race in space, The Corps of Discovery, like the astronauts, were military men. The big keelboat going up the Missouri River was the Saturn booster rocket. This was Mission Control behind me - Monticello," he explained.
On January 18, 1803, Thomas Jefferson sent a confidential message to the U.S. Congress, requesting funds for an exploration party to the west coast. In 1804, expedition leaders William Clark and Meriwether Lewis began a two-year journey that would take them from what's now the midwestern city of Saint Louis, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. They were joined along the way by a young Indian woman named Sacajawea. Carrying a child on her back, she became their guide.
"The Lewis and Clark journey in many ways becomes our great national road story. It's made by a whole community, men from many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, a woman and a child," said University of Tulsa professor James Ronda, the keynote speaker at the Monticello ceremony.
"This journey begins the process of Americans looking westward, thinking about mobility as a way to find a new tomorrow," said Mr. Ronda. "So many of those white Americans who go into the west find disaster and tragedy and suffering. And they carry with them the seeds for the suffering of native people. But if we want to understand beginnings, then we need to learn to look to this journey as one of the moments when we can see what it is that we will become."
James Ronda says interest in Lewis and Clark has surged since the early 1960s, when historian Donald Jackson published correspondence from the expedition. Donald Jackson also encouraged scholars to look beyond Lewis and Clarkand see the expedition as a story with many characters and dramas. James Ronda points to Native American contributions as especially important.
"Native people provide information, maps, guidance, hospitality, food. They are the ones who help carry luggage over the Continental Divide. If you take native people out of this story, you don't have a story," he went on to say.
The bicentennial exposition included an honor song performed by Monacan Indian Daniel Redelk Gear. His people have long inhabited the region where Monticello is located. Some Native Americans are avoiding bicentennial events, saying they're a painful reminder of how western exploration damaged their way of life. But others are using the bicentennial to call attention to their heritage.
"My fourth great grandfather was Chief Concomly who met Lewis and Clark at the mouth of the Columbia in 1805. And his group directed them to a safer place to camp for the night, they and provided them with salmon to eat," said Chinook Indian chief Cliff Snider, a featured speaker at the commemoration.
"I'm using it as a format to help my tribe regain recognition," he stressed. "We were put at the mouth of the Columbia River as the first people at the beginning of time by the Creator. And we are still here today, 2,000 [members] strong." The bicentennial has also captured the attention of environmentalists. David Ellenberger of Bozeman, Montana is the Lewis and Clark Campaign Outreach Coordinator for the Sierra Club. He pointed out that the environmental group is working both to protect and promote interest in the Lewis and Clark trail.
"We have been working to get people out in the woods, to have them experience what's left in the West, what beautiful animal creatures we have left, like bison and grizzly bears and elks, and to have them go home and talk to their people in Congress to build a monument of lands and wildlife for the Lewis and Clark bicentennial," he said.
A series of commemoration events begin soon in historic settlements in the Missouri River Valley, where the expedition began. Doug Aken, the executive director of the Missouri Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council, hopes those events will help revitalize old communities:
"So it's bringing people to new places along the Lewis and Clark trail," he said." I think many states, including Missouri, are hoping people have an interest in settling or doing business or coming back to these small places."
If people are commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition for many reasons, a prevailing theme is that everyone has a voice. Monacan Indian Karenne Wood struck that inclusive note with a poem she wrote for opening ceremonies. It's called Homeland," and it ends with these words: "Nothing was discovered, everything was already loved. We who embrace our father's homeland, hand this love to you, whose faces rise out of the ground, looking west. In our tongues we welcome the people who follow us here."
The Lewis and Clark commemoration will end in 2006 with another series of events in Missouri, where the explorers completed their round trip journey.