Two Centuries Later, 
a Moment for Indians to Retell the Past

By Timothy Egan
New York Times, 
June 15, 2003

New Town, N.D. - Indian Country is a place where people
gather in late June to celebrate the day Custer was whipped
at Little Big Horn, where cars sometimes run only in
reverse and casinos run all night, and where a Nez Percé
guide who led Lewis and Clark over the Bitterroot Mountains
is remembered by his native name, which means "Furnishes
White Men With Brains."

But on the map - be it the road atlas handed out by the
state or the statistical one issued by the Census Bureau -
the homelands of the first Americans seem to possess little
life or magic. Across vast stretches of the northern
plains, Indian lands are blank patches, nations within a
nation, landlocked islands foreign to most other Americans.

Certainly, the scars of memory are layered as thick as the
dam water that buries so many old Indian villages and
sacred sites here. Generations after the scourges of
smallpox, war and forced resettlement, much of what a
traveler finds in Indian Country is emptiness.

Still, those looking to find some link across 200 years, to
the people whose nations Lewis and Clark passed through,
need only peek into daily life on the reservations along
the trail from St. Louis to the Pacific.

Here in New Town, home of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara,
Amy Mossett has just planted her garden, using seed corn
that is the antithesis of genetically engineered
agriculture; it is the same sweet corn given members of the
American expedition to help them through the winter of
1804-05, at their fort just down river. At that time, the
Indian urban complex 1,600 miles from the mouth of the
Missouri River had more people (about 4,000) than St. Louis
or Washington.

"Indians have the strongest sense of place of anyone in the
world," said Ms. Mossett, a Mandan-Hidatsa who is a scholar
on Sacagawea, the young Lemhi Shoshone woman who saved
Lewis and Clark from disaster at two points when the
expedition was at low ebb. "Look at me: why would I choose
to live in little New Town, North Dakota, when I could live
anywhere? It's because we've been a part of the Missouri
River for a thousand years."

New Town, by its name, raises the question of what happened
to Old Town. And this is where the Mandans, who did perhaps
more than any other tribe to help Lewis and Clark, turn

It was one thing for the tribe to lose 90 percent of its
members to smallpox, a disease that did more than the
United States Cavalry to wipe out American Indians. But in
the mid-20th century, just as the population was
rebounding, the federal government built the Garrison Dam.
It choked off the Missouri River here and buried 155,000
acres of prime Indian farmland under a reservoir, dividing
a tight-knit reservation into five districts. Many tribal
members wound up in this community, on higher ground.

"Some gratitude, huh?" said Frederick Baker, the
Mandan-Hidatsa archivist at the tribal museum here. "One
guy I know had his house moved as he was eating dinner.
But, hey, we want people to understand our people are
alive. Everywhere else in North Dakota, schools are closing
and towns are dying. We're growing. We're alive!"

The Corps of Volunteers for North Western Discovery, as
Lewis called the expedition, passed through roughly 50
Indian nations in their journey of nearly 8,000 miles. Some
of those tribes were forcibly removed to Oklahoma. Others -
including the Chinook, who lived at the mouth of the
Columbia River on the Pacific Coast - are today without a
homeland, even a tiny reservation.

The indignities are piled like bleached buffalo bones. Some
of the friendliest tribes were later treated the worst. The
Nez Percé, who saved the corps from starvation in Idaho,
were chased from their treaty-promised homeland and rounded
up near the Canadian border in 1877. The Lemhi Shoshone
were erased from the land they had lived on for hundreds of
years, and lumped with other tribes in the desert of
southern Idaho.

But now as then, big pieces of the trail, particularly in
the Dakotas, run through solid Indian Country. These lands
hold the bones of Sitting Bull, the great Sioux chief, and
of Sacagawea. They contain towns full of heartbreak, where
suicide is the No. 1 killer. They also hold prairie grass
untouched by the plow, and bison herds roaming free, giving
the tribes something to connect pop-culture-jaded teens on
the reservation of 2003 to the warriors whose spirit so
impressed travelers in 1803.

This year, even the Blackfeet of Montana, the only nation
to lose people in mortal conflict with Lewis and Clark, and
the aggressive Teton Sioux of the Plains, have the

It is time, the Indians say, to tell their own story of
Lewis and Clark, an epic about Indians bailing out whites,
showing them where to go, what to eat, whom to avoid along
the way, and how to get back home in one piece.

"One reason we're opening our doors to people is because
there are so many dumb images of what Indians are like,"
said Denelle High Elk of the Cheyenne River Sioux
Reservation in South Dakota. "I was in Monticello in
January, for the kickoff of the bicentennial, and the cab
driver said to me, `Oh, you're Indian. You people still
live in tepees, don't you?"

Forgotten by History

President Thomas Jefferson knew he was sending an
expedition through lands populated by people who did not
care a whit for lines drawn on maps in Paris or Virginia.
But Jefferson, an Enlightenment-age man, had conflicted
views of the native people. He thought some Indians could
be "civilized" back East, while others had to be removed to
the far Western plains, the continental equivalent of Mars.

"Jefferson appears both as the scholarly admirer of Indian
character, archaeology and language, and the planner of
cultural genocide, the architect of the removal policy, the
surveyor of the Trail of Tears," wrote the historian
Anthony F. C. Wallace, in his book, "Jefferson and the
Indians: the Tragic Fate of the First Americans.

Lewis and Clark had trouble finding Indians at first. The
swift plague of smallpox had come before them, and in some
places it left a deathly resonance.

On Aug. 12, 1804, the corps passed the empty village of
Tonwantonga, where the once powerful Omahas had lived.
Today Nebraska's largest city is named for this tribe,
which has a tiny toehold in the state.

Further north lived the Otoe, who joined the Missouri Tribe
about 200 years ago. They were the first Indians to have a
council with Lewis and Clark.

Today the Otoe and the Missouri have vanished from the
trail. They can found in distant Oklahoma, where about
1,300 members live near Red Rock. They feel forgotten by
history, some members said, left out of the bicentennial.

But in rummaging through the belongings of a well-traveled
tribe, the Otoe found something recently that has
electrified historians - two documents written by
Meriwether Lewis, which are not in his journal, describing
Indians on the middle Missouri.

"My grandmother kept these in her trunk," said Rhoda Dent,
treasurer of the tribe. "After she died, my cousin found
them. It was just phenomenal for us to read them, even
though Lewis refers to native people as children."

The documents are now in the Oklahoma Museum of History,
and curators there say they believe they are authentic.

The Otoe would like to reconnect to their old homeland. "We
were the first to greet Lewis and Clark, and look what
happened to us," Ms. Dent said.

Upriver, the expedition met different reactions among the
large nations that roamed the Dakota prairie. Among the
Yankton Sioux, the men dined at a tidy village on a meal of
stewed dog meat - "good & well-flavored," as one expedition
member described it.

William Clark described the Yankton Sioux this way: "Stout
bold looking people (the young men hand Sum) and well made.
The Warriors are Very much deckerated with porcupin quils &
feathers, large legins & mockersons, all with Buffalow
roabes of Different colours."

The late historian Stephen Ambrose called such descriptions
"pathbreaking ethnology." But the next encounter, with the
Teton Sioux, appears to have been a textbook case of
diplomatic blundering.

The corps showed off its air gun and a magnifying glass,
while offering medals and tobacco. The Teton Sioux,
unimpressed, wanted something in return for letting these
people pass through their lands. At one point guns were
drawn, arrows aimed, and the small cannon mounted to the
corps' keelboat ready to fire. The standoff ended
peacefully after three days, but with both sides steamed.

Clark never forgot nor forgave. "They are the vilest
miscreants of the savage race and must ever remain the
pirates of the Missouri," he wrote of the Teton Sioux.

Living Between 2 Worlds

The Sioux fought for their lands
to the end, helping to defeat Custer, only to be
slaughtered at Wounded Knee in 1890. Today the bands of the
Great Sioux Nation, as they call themselves, are spread
throughout South Dakota, while Jefferson's granite visage
is carved near an Indian sacred site in the Badlands.

They have shown the same fierce spirit in taking hold of
the Lewis and Clark bicentennial in their state, despite
opposition from some Sioux elders, and some initial snubs
from other tribes. The Sioux have organized an intertribal
tourism council, and set up a Native American Scenic Byway
- "a journey through the lands of the least known and most
misunderstood nations in America," as the Indians say in a
brochure for the road and its highlights.

"We were entrepreneurs back then," said Daphne Richards
Cook, who lives on the Lower Brule Sioux Reservation in
South Dakota. "And we're entrepreneurs now."

The reservations are breathtaking, the prairie grass high
and green, the towns bursting with one quirky story after
another. They are the biggest population centers for
hundreds of miles, with 12,000 Indians living on the
Cheyenne River Reservation, 11,000 on the Standing Rock,
and 4,300 total on the smaller Crow Creek and Lower Brule
reservations. One out of every 12 people in South Dakota,
population 756,600, is Indian.

"I call Indian Country the last of the real frontier," said
Wanda Wells Crowe of the Crow Creek Sioux. "Take a look -
it's not your typical America."

The Sioux say they walk a fine line between two worlds. "A
lot of Indians don't want people here," Ms. Crowe said.
"And in truth, I sometimes wonder myself why I'm doing
this, trying to promote Lewis and Clark as a way to tell
our story." Perhaps the greatest cross-cultural mingling on
the expedition happened in what is now North Dakota, where
the corps wintered just across the river from Mandan and
Hidatsa villages. Lewis and Clark spent more time in the
area than anywhere else.

What the natives who descended from those tribes want
people to know is that they already had an advanced society
when Lewis and Clark arrived. It was a sophisticated
agricultural society, with clans and large earth lodges run
by women. The Indians shared food, building tips and wives
with the newcomers.

"Jefferson wanted to make Indians into farmer and traders,"
Ms. Mossett said between bites of a fajita salad at a
restaurant here in New Town. "But we were already doing all
of that. The difference is, we were doing it without slave

Of course, the Mandan and Hidatsa captured other Indians in
raids, and later adopted them into their culture. That is
how Sacagawea came to live with the Mandan and Hidatsa. She
joined the corps in the winter, just after giving birth to
a boy she would carry across the West and back.

"In some ways, the Hidatsa thought these guys were a joke,"
said Mr. Baker, the museum archivist. "We saw them as a
trading opportunity, but also felt sorry for them. And we
joked about their crummy trade items."

Farther along the trail, the Nez Percé also pitied the
corps. At one point, the explorers might have been killed
just after crossing the Continental Divide, but a Nez Percé
woman intervened.

"The expedition owed more to Indian women than either
captain ever acknowledged," Mr. Ambrose wrote in "Undaunted
Courage," his best-selling account of the voyage. Mr.
Ambrose also noted the bitter irony that when the Nez Percé
were driven out of their homeland in 1877, among the
stragglers were a handful of old men who had been children
when Lewis and Clark visited.

The Nez Percé, alone among American Indian tribes,
selectively bred horses, and say they produced the
appaloosa. On this bicentennial, the tribe is reviving its
horse-breeding registry and language as part of a Lewis and
Clark Rediscovery Project.

A sign on the Weippe Prairie, in Idaho, reads: "Lewis and
Clark Route, First Contact Between Two Cultures."

Like the Sioux, the Nez Percé, with 3,296 tribal members
today, suffered the indignity of not even being called by
their real name. Sioux is a Chippewa word, shortened by the
French, which means little snake, or enemy. Nez Percé is
also a French misnomer. Tribal members say they did not
pierce their noses.

At the very least, the Nez Percé, like other Indians along
the route from the flatlands to the ocean, hope the Lewis
and Clark bicentennial will dispel certain myths.

With the kind of humor found often in Indian Country, the
tribe is taking to the revisionist task. After discussing
efforts to restore salmon in rivers stapled with government
dams, the Nez Percé report on their Web site that "we also
frequent restaurants and eat modern foods."