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Volume 1, No. 2: February 5, 2004

Crossing A Divide

Essay by Michael Bouman

The Lewis and Clark National Bicentennial Exhibit opened in St. Louis on January 17 with a ceremony of historic and national dimensions. As with the famous journey of the Corps of Discovery, the national exhibit that commemorates it would not have been possible without the help of Indians all the way. Indians from twenty-three tribes and nations marched with their flags into the gathering place at the Missouri Historical Museum in Forest Park for the grand opening. The exhibit is a huge cultural and social accomplishment. Many of those visitors had never laid eyes on the Missouri landscape, nor did they fully comprehend the extent of Native American involvement in telling this bicentennial story, nor had they considered the complexities of being part of an occasion that commemorates the "beginning of the end" for the historic societies of their forebears.

Osage elder Harry Red Eagle, Jr. offered a blessing in the Osage language. Osage principal chief James Roan Gray spoke of his feelings as he came to his ancestral homeland. For two and a half hours one speaker after another took the podium, and not one word was wasteful. The time passed too quickly.

Also present to speak at the opening was an American historian who for the past twenty years has defined the cutting edge of scholarship related to Lewis and Clark and the opening of the West. He is James P. Ronda, and the essays in his 2001 book, Finding The West provide an electrifying introduction to a style of history that not only seeks fresh interpretations of national myths, but shows pathways of thinking that can best be construed as "socially constructive."

To walk into that exhibit is to continually re-think aspects of our assumptions about "our" American story. We, no matter who "we" are, must integrate a new take on a historical theme. Like an opera by Wagner, this exhibit contains many themes, leitmotifs, if you will, that lend themselves to asthetic shaping.

Take maps, for example, or tales of travel. A map of Canada and a book recounting Canadian westward exploration spurred Thomas Jefferson to race for the West before it could be claimed by the British. The exhibit displays the book Jefferson read, the books Lewis took on the expedition, the journals the explorers maintained, the equipment they used to measure their trek, and Clark's cool, measured statements about certain topography. In the same galleries, we see maps made by Indians for the explorers, and through earphones we hear Native speakers recount the legends and myths that transmit spiritual meanings about the same landscape that Clark saw only as something to be measured.

One of the leitmotifs is land itself, illusions about land, myths about land, the exploitation of land, land as a commodity, land as a commonwealth. The myths are held by Indians and non-Indians alike. We are flooded with impressions in the gallery. History is not linear here; it is kaleidoscopic. This is the form national stories take when the tellers see the tale from multiple vantage points. The advantage is to all; no one can fail to take away many things to ponder after seeing this exhibit.

Take identity. Who was "Sacagawea?" Was she a captive of the Hidatsa people and then the chattel bride of Charboneau? The stories about her are not in agreement. The exhibit invites you to look at the conflicting testimony and see if you can get to a point of clarity in your own mind. Maybe you won't. Maybe you will have to install several "points of clarity" about her story.

Take respect. The concept of respect is the message underlying the entire enterprise of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. There is respect for our situation as fellow-citizens of the U.S. There is respect for the sorrowful and tragic unfairness that history contains and transmits as a legacy for the people of the present to grasp and acknowledge. There is respect for the human dignity of people who see the world in different ways. I could not help feeling, as I pondered the messages in the exhibit galleries, that I had become a participant in an extended, national sacrament of healing.

All exhibits are the work of a community. In this exhibit, the community of participants was extended across cultural and geographic space. They put the best of their lives' knowledge and experience into the exhibit. Now the door is open to us all to repay their best effort with our own best effort, not just within the exhibit's walls, but in the wider world.