So much seems geared for non-Indians
The Indian piece of history is still missing, says photographer.
Photographer Mary Annette Pember wrote personal dispatches as she
and Mark Anthony Rolo traveled the Lewis and Clark trail in the summer
of 2003. Along the way she found much that made her angry, but she
also found hope.
These are her words.
The Lewis and Clark Visitor and Interpretive Centers along the trail
are beautiful monuments to modern museum science and design. The buildings
and grounds are immaculate with large bathrooms and parking lots.
The gift shops sell Meriwether Lewis and William Clark books, CDs
and all manner of themed items, including dolls and candy.Everything
is very welcoming to the white, middle-class visitors and leaves the
impression that the real Indians are dead and gone right along with
Lewis and Clark. This far in history, the mainstream Lewis and Clark
experience seems to feed the notion that Indians are part of a bygone
era, picturesque denizens of a long-gone past. The Indian culture,
history, geography and stories of the land west of the Mississippi
are rich and diverse. What a terrible loss to all Americans that these
stories are told mostly from the perspective of a small group of ethnocentric
white men who focus on commercial success. It's as though only one
thread in a beautifully complex tapestry has been pulled out and displayed
to represent an entire work of art.
click to enlarge
We quickly realize that following the rivers and letting the geography of Lewis and Clark dictate our travels is a mistake because so many of the Indians encountered by Lewis and Clark have been removed from their lands. We decide we must leave the river banks and visit today's tribal locations to tell this story from a Native American perspective.All the Indians we interview are ambivalent, at best, about the Lewis and Clark commemoration. And as we drive, we spend long hours thinking and talking about our own ambivalence and anger that is difficult to name and impossible to ignore.I read a book by Derrick Jensen, ``The Culture of Make Believe,'' that comes very close to naming my feelings of injustice and indignation about the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. As historians have well documented, an 1823 decision by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in Johnson v. M'Intosh, Marshall declared that "discovery gave title.'' He adds that conquest gives title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny.To put it another way, Jensen says that this means the entire system is based upon an injustice and the Supreme Court can do nothing other than uphold this injustice into law.To dispossess an entire culture may "be supported by reason, and certainly cannot be rejected by courts of justice,'' he wrote.For us, the bicentennial commemoration celebrates discovery by conquest and it sticks in our craws. Cincinnati I descend to the Ohio River and leave the suburban sprawl behind. The weeds grow thick and rank along highway 50 as far as you can see. No sensible person would put up a building here. This land is owned by the river.
This is where I begin my physical journey. St. Louis I arrive in St. Louis in the late afternoon. I decide to experience the Lewis and Clark Trail as a middle-class white American and spend the night at a much-advertised, historical bed and breakfast in St. Charles. I feel hopelessly uncomfortable and out of place in the cramped, overly decorated room. Tiny signs with painfully neat lettering warn occupants against making excess noise, using too much toilet tissue and other social faux pas.
The dainty and overly sweetened processed breakfast is served in a room with numerous duck decoy effigies. No amount of quaintness could dispel the sense that the spirit of Martha Stewart has gone awry here. The proprietor asks after my heritage and then announces she’s taken a class about American Indians. She takes the opportunity to question me.
“Now, I understand that American Indian is the correct term for you people and not Native American. Perhaps you can tell me. You know it really would be easier if you people could make up your minds.”Well, I tell her, not everyone has yet responded to the online poll, but as soon as they do, I’ll send her an e-mail message. I pick Mark up at the airport and we move on. (Mark Anthony Rolo, the writer, flew into Missouri from Los Angeles for the assignment.) Before leaving St. Charles, we stroll along the streets where Lewis and Clark hung out before departing. We see replicas of the pirogues used during the voyage near the nice, new interpretive center. Work is progressing nicely on a fountain with an oversize frieze of Lewis and Clark and Lewis’ dog Seaman on the banks of the Missouri River. Among the many quaint shops, we find matching Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea, Thomas Jefferson, and Seaman dolls as well as Lewis and Clark tie-dye shirts. The only Indian we see in town is wooden, standing in front of a tobacco store, a silent witness to the droves of tourists seeking the Lewis and Clark experience. Missouri
The Missouri River is dark, dirty and sluggish, but still somehow beautiful as it flows hugely and silently. Big rivers like the Missouri are wild and rangy and do as they please. They are alive. They touch me deeply. I feed them tobacco and give them thanks. They are sacred. Kansas
Edmore Green is a member of the Sac and Fox tribal council. He’s standing in the tribe’s small museum near the Missouri River in Kansas.
Green’s disgusted by the commemoration and he initially refuses to be photographed or even quoted. He explains that his tribe will hire re-enactors to man the national signature events. Eventually, he agrees to take us to the site of a future event. We meet co-coordinator, Rubin Kent, from an Iowa tribe.
We clear a space for Edmore in the back seat of our rental car, our war pony, and drive along the narrow roads through the sweltering heat and corn fields. As we reach the crest of a hill, we see a stocky Indian man in worn, baggy clothing. His long hair is pulled back into a knot as he lopes down the road with a huge machete slung over his shoulder. “There he is,” says Edmore. Rubin flashes a big smile when he sees that our vehicle contains Indians. He swings himself into the back seat and begins joking with us, Indian style, like we’ve known him all his life. Rubin is a nationally recognized artist who’s famous for his traditional Iowa pottery, beadwork and sculpture. Articulate and astute, he slays us with his dry wit. He is well-educated and traveled, a sort of Renaissance Indian.
He uses his machete to cut a trail to the bank of the Missouri River and shows us the site of the upcoming signature event. Next to a collapsed lawn chair, he finds a turtle on the end of a fishing line.He triumphantly proclaims, “By right of discovery!” as he frees the animal. This man skewers Lewis and Clark’s notion of discovery with ease. I laugh so hard I have to sit down. As far as the local signature event, both Rubin and Edmore think it’s an opportunity to teach non-Indians about the local tribes. And who knows? It may bring in some income for the community, they say.Rubin has taken time off from his career to care for his ailing mother, Viola. He takes us to his home on the Iowa reservation, a small HUD-style house. Tibetan prayer flags fly in the backyard near his patch of traditional Indian corn and drying racks.
We sit in the cramped, sun-drenched kitchen as he plays one of his
traditional Indian flutes for his mother. She listens with pride.
We arrive in St. Joe by late evening and load up on Indian steak (bologna) and bread (sometimes called a roll of red and a loaf of bread), our staple diet for the trip. We stay at a hotel, vintage late 1940s, with a neon outline of a galloping horse and rider blinking out front. It’s a ‘50s and ‘60s throwback that has since declined into a place where poor people stay now. Half of the complex has been boarded over.The Indian owner (dot on forehead, not feather in the hair) greets us kindly in the ol’ West-themed office. A studded outline of the hotel’s name behind the desk is framed on imitation leather. Stacks of Jehovah Witness literature are arranged next to the tourist brochures.
“Yes, he says, “Many people come to see the things about
the Pony Express.”He tells us the history of St. Joseph and
its connection to the 1860 postal service. Hearing this story told
by a Jehovah’s Witness with a heavy east Indian accent is wildly
incongruous. We have entered some sort of cultural warp. Could Lewis
and Clark have anticipated this?Omaha Reservation
We head north into Nebraska and are delighted by the bustling community of Macy, the hub of the Omaha reservation. “Downtown” is a vibrant place where tribal members live and work, going about the business of life, leaving little doubt about the survival of the Omaha tribe and culture.They welcome us warmly, proudly inviting us to visit their community. We tour the large modern tribal school for elementary through high school students. The public pool is crowded with sassy young Indians on this hot day. Omaha tribal advisor Rudy Mitchell tells us that the community will be celebrating the 200th anniversary of their annual Harvest Festival in 2004 which will take place during the Lewis and Clark signature event. Their festival will be their focus of celebration during that time.
The kids at the pool swarm over us, little hands dart into my camera
bag as they beg to look through my camera. One boy finds a granola
bar and others try to wrestle it from him. It’s clear they assume
we are relatives and, like all good visiting aunties and uncles, we
ought to be carrying sweets. We ask if anyone has heard of Lewis and
Clark and they answer, “Yeah. We watch them all the time (on
television).” Spirit Mound In Vermillion, S.D., a young Lakota
woman named Serene Thin Elk speaks to us about Spirit Mound. Expedition
members had heard of a large hill where small, evil spirits dwelled.
We decide to investigate ourselves.
Lewis and Clark marched to the top of Spirit Mound where they saw no small beings but they did enjoy the view of the surrounding prairie. They promptly dismissed the story as part of what they saw as a primitive culture’s myths and resumed their journey. We recognize the importance of this place and consider the arrogant dismissal by Lewis and Clark.Serene tells us what her grandmother has told her about the tremendous strength of Spirit Mound as a place for meditation and ceremony. It is neither a good place nor a bad place, it is a strong place, not to be taken lightly. For Serene, such absolutes as good and evil do not exist in the Lakota view of spirituality.
Like a beautiful enchantress, she sits in the boughs of a willow tree and plays her flute for us. We feel as though we have received a precious gift before we continue north to Pierre.Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation
We arrive on the Cheyenne River Reservation in the early morning. Downtown is busy as folks go about their business, vendors sell fresh produce and kids raise money for their boxing team. The boys, some in boxing gloves, some with mouth guards and others with boxing shorts stand in the middle of main street, catching cars from every direction. It’s a festive atmosphere and they are doing well.On this particular day, members of the Fiyiyi tribe of Mardi Gras Indians of Louisiana are visiting the area. This is their first visit to a reservation. I am humbled by the dignity and tolerance extended to these unusual visitors by the Cheyenne River people.Bismarck En route to Bismarck, we listen to hiphop music on the rez radio station and pass fields that are alive with acres of sunflowers. The landscape is unhurried and endless.We arrive at our hotel in Bismarck where the desk clerk greets us heartily, “Hi, Denise. Hi, Joe!”We tell her we are not Denise and Joe.“Well, you look just like ‘em!” she says accusingly.We apologize and check into our rooms. Ft. Berthold The river has been dammed on the reservation as part of a controversial project years ago that has covered many traditional lands of the Three Affiliated Tribes, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara. The land surrounding the new lake is barren and stark, providing ample boat access to the water. The tribes have chosen to build their casino nearby. They appear to be doing well. The casino hotel is booked solid with tourists and powwow goers.
The powwow grounds are situated in a small, intimate setting that makes us feel at home. It’s a lazy, hot Sunday afternoon. Kids clamor to buy snowcones and inflatable cartoon characters from vendors. We smile to see little traditional dancers carrying huge blow-up Incredible Hulk and Scooby-Doo dolls. We spot some lanky teenage boys doing rope tricks near the frybread stands and ask if they are practicing for a competition. They shove each other and finally tell us that they are mainly trying to snag girls but confess that they haven’t been doing very well. We ask if they’ve ever tried actually throwing the rope around the girls and they answer, “Yeah, but then they get mad.”
We visit the longest continuously publishing reservation newspaper, Wotanin Wowapi (Something to Read) and the famous Wotanin girls, as they are known. They are a scrappy bunch of women who practice honest grass-roots journalism that keeps the community informed about local doings and the potential impact of tribal council decisions on members’ everyday lives. We spend time with ad sales person Mariane Montclair, an outlandishly witty woman who calls everyone Nancy. On the sheer force of her personality and persistence she secures business from advertising giants such as Albertsons and other large corporate businesses.It is her birthday and she is feeling especially loquacious. She insists we buy her lunch.She shares stories of her life, her struggles to survive and her intense bond with the land. She is an avid root digger and takes us to her gathering places. She cannot picture herself living anywhere else. Neither can we.Crow Reservation
Time and money are running out on our expedition and we make the hard decision to start heading back. We make a left, south toward Crow country. We arrive in time for the beginning of the Crow Fair. The sun and heat are unrelenting and the dry weather makes the countryside a tinderbox. Forest fires burn in the distance. We manage to find Crow Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, George Reed, and his family in the vast sea of tepees.
The camp is well-appointed and crowded with relatives who tease each other good-naturedly in the Crow language. The family has camped here for many years and have clearly gotten this event down to a science. Grandkids and cousins lounge on a fold-away bed and watch videos in the main family tepee. Outside, George busily kills snakes with a big shovel as daughters stand safely on lawn chairs.
He is disenchanted with the bicentennial commemoration and doubtful about the tribe’s plans.
“What with everyone trying to out-Indian one another, it’s hard to get anything going,” he says.His daughters, however, brag about the newly refurbished Little Big Horn College and the grand opening planned for that weekend. The bicentennial clearly holds very little interest for them and apparently for the rest of the community who are grappling with more immediate concerns.The trip is beginning to take on a bitter taste as I ponder history and numbers. It was estimated that at European contact or discovery in the late 15th century, there were more than 10 million native people living in what is now the United States. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were fewer than 230,000 remaining. Sioux City
My anger remains until we reach the Omaha reservation where the 199th annual Harvest Festival is taking place. It’s a really fun festival and powwow. Wonderfully down to earth and unpretentious, the people dance and enjoy one another. I remember Rudy Mitchell mentioning that next year is the 200th anniversary of this festival. He also mentioned that National Geographic Magazine will be doing a big story on them then. He was pleased that they were coming but I got the sense of “OK, let them come. No matter what, we’ll be here.”I end the trip filled with faith in the survival of native culture.Native peoples are like the rivers traveled by Lewis and Clark, ever-changing but forever rooted in this land. We will always be here and we will always be native.
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