There is much hoopla and backslapping surrounding the bicentennial (1804-06) of Thomas Jefferson's sanctioned Western journey by Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, all of it pumping up the nostalgia of a "white nation." But dark echoes persist. Debatable issues such as the Doctrine of Discovery, Manifest Destiny, empire building, eminent domain and conquest -- shaped by the resulting genocide of countless hundreds of thousands of Native Americans through this vehicle called "first contact" -- hardly get mentioned in the celebrations.
A long, hard death sentence resulted from the whites' contact with tribes like the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara along the Missouri and Nez Perce and other tribes in our neck of the woods. It's an age-old story of the expansion of empire for land, riches and spiritual subjugation, one epitomized by General Sheridan in 1869: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."
The Doctrine of Discovery viewed tribal land as "empty" of humans. Because the West was only filled with "savages" that did not fit the conquering hordes' metaphysical, economic and political models of humanness, the god-blessed white men felt they had the right to claim it.
"All of this history came upriver with Lewis and Clark," said author Paul VanDevelder in a talk about the legacy of Lewis and Clark last week at River Park Square to coincide with the traveling exhibit there. "We now acknowledge that westward migration was accomplished through officially sanctioned treachery and genocide. The catalog of horrors ... resulted from an absolute failure to act in moral alignment with the organic language and law that established the American experiment in democracy," stated VanDevelder, who is also a filmmaker, activist and author of the book Coyote Warrior.
VanDevelder's passion is rooted in the narratives of Mandan-Hidatsa-Arikara ancestors and the inculcation of songs and dances of old tribes that in essence express that "a river is its people, and a people are the river."
VanDevelder's own journey to complete this first book (with the subtitle, "One Man, Three Tribes, and a Trial That Forged a Nation") lasted more than 10 years as he lived and researched along the Upper Missouri River.
He came to see how the death of a river turns into the death of a people. He listened to native women weave their own stories, their tribes' histories and the legacy of deep, collective pain passed on by the generations who saw fertile land that from time immemorial was etched with tribal identity and then flooded over by the Garrison Dam in 1954.
He absorbed the spirit of these people while picking buffalo berries, choke cherries and wild turnips with four women along bluffs overlooking what is now an impounded reservoir, Lake Sakakawea, in North Dakota and on part of the Fort Berthold Mandan reservation.
Then he wrote like mad.
Coyote Warrior follows the intersection of two cultures' legacies with one Prairie Chicken clansman, Raymond Cross, a University of Montana law professor and the Mandan who, almost 50 years after the Garrison Dam displaced his family's village along the Knife River, convinced the government to pay his people for their land.
VanDevelder guides his audience back to a time of hardworking Mandan villages. (Chief Cherry Necklace, a relative of Cross, grew up with Sacajawea as his adopted sister.) The Mandan safe-housed the explorers during a hard winter in 1804, and like the Nez Perce the following year, they probably saved them from starvation.
A century and a half later, in 1954, what was the three tribes' reward for saving the Lewis and Clark expedition? Their truly beautiful river home, fertile bottomlands, berries, game, fish, economy and tribal and cultural identity were lost to the rising waters behind a $300 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers dam.
"Their lives were stable until the 1944 Flood Control Act. For 30 years, they lived with their grief" of Indian villages covered over by 200 feet of water, writes VanDevelder. Then a meeting in New Town, N.D., in the mid-1970s opened up the spiritual floodgates, and elders came by the carload to tell their stories of how lives were shattered by the dam and slack water.
VanDevelder's book is being adopted in college classes; there's an upcoming PBS documentary, "In the Wake of the Flood"; and the Sundance Film Festival is considering his book for movie development -- all creating hoopla of a different kind over the Lewis and Clark bicentennial.