Published September 23 2004
Tracers of historical expedition run into oppositionFORT THOMPSON, S.D. - A cadre of adventurous men retracing the historic trek of the Lewis and Clark expedition of two centuries ago was greeted by friendly throngs along 900 miles of the Missouri River before unexpectedly running into naysayers.
Camped along the shore here Wednesday, four days later and about 50 miles upriver, Norman Bowers of Maryland Heights, Mo., said he was surprised when a group of irate American Indians told the replicated expedition to turn around and go home.
The angry meeting took place at Chamberlain, where the rolling prairie opens to a grand vista on the lofty banks of the Missouri.
"Things were terse and tense," said Bowers, who portrays Sgt. Nathaniel Pryor from the original expedition.
"We did not expect to be treated in the fashion that we were," he added, keeping dry under a canvas awning during a steady drizzle of rain as several large pots of coffee simmered over an open flame.
About 25 Indians, led by Alex White Plume of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, had requested the earlier meeting with the Lewis and Clark re-enactment troupe. The Indians chastised the re-enactors for celebrating a journey that marked the beginning of the end to traditional Indian culture.
"Lewis and Clark brought the death and destruction of our way of life," White Plume said Thursday from his home in Manderson, where he raises buffalo, horses and industrial hemp.
Re-enactors in the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, Mo., which launched a replica 55-foot keelboat and two smaller boats from that town Aug. 23, are glorifying the westward expansion that resulted in loss of Indian lands, broken treaties and genocide, White Plume said.
However, expedition members decided not to reverse their northwesterly course on a journey that will end for the season on Nov. 4 at Fort Mandan in North Dakota.
Continuing the expedition will provide a public forum for both the significance of Lewis and Clark's explorations and the eventual impact on Indians, said Scott Mandrell, an Alton, Ill., teacher who portrays Capt. Meriwether Lewis.
"We're pleased to be a catalyst for these very serious issues. I don't fault their convictions, and we don't want to minimize their concerns," Mandrell said.
Vic Camp, also from the Pine Ridge Reservation and one of the protesters, said Thursday they will confront the re-enactors again as their boats land at Fort Yates, N.D., next month on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Camp, a 29-year-old college student, said a small group of Indians also would go to a Lewis and Clark re-enactment ceremony at Fort Pierre on Saturday to tell the public about the historic indignities suffered by Indians.
"Native people have been persecuted and oppressed, our lands have been taken away and our buffalo have been slaughtered," he said, promising that all protests will be peaceful.
Camp, whose father, Carter, was involved in the 1973 armed occupation of the Wounded Knee village on the Pine Ridge Reservation, said angry words were exchanged at Chamberlain because Indians have long been troubled by their treatment at the hands of the U.S. government.
"We're not militants, and we don't want to cause trouble," the younger Camp said. "But we want people to know the true American history, not only the white history."
Jay D. Vogt, director of the South Dakota Historical Society, said it is ironic that the re-enactors argued with Indians about 100 miles from the Missouri River's confluence with the Bad River, where the original Lewis and Clark expedition nearly had a fight with the Teton Sioux after exchanging angry words in the fall of 1804.
Indians generally have dim views about the Lewis and Clark expedition, Vogt said.
"It did change the destiny of all people on the North American continent," he said. "Most people involved with the Lewis and Clark bicentennial use the word 'commemorate' instead of celebrate because American Indian people can easily make the case that it isn't a celebration for them."
Forty tribal governments belong to an advisory group for the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, and those tribes have endorsed the re-enactment journey as a means of spreading the Indian perspective on exploration of the West 200 years ago, said Sammye Meadows, cultural awareness coordinator for the council.
"This is a shared history," she said. "The consequences of what happened after the Lewis and Clark expedition have been very severe in Indian Country."
Jon Ruybalid, an Aurora, Neb., attorney who has spent several weeks as a crewman on the re-enactment journey, said tribes all along the route were asked in advance for permission to land and none refused. He said continuation of the trek will help ensure a public platform for Indian views.
"There is truth that American Indians have been treated wrongly over the years, and that should be acknowledged," Ruybalid said. "But we're not Lewis and Clark. We are a group of volunteers."
Indians are rightfully suspicious of non-Indians, White Plume said, and he is not convinced that the re-enactors are the best choice to relate Indian history.
"I believe they are honorable men, but what they represent is irritating," said White Plume. "How can we allow Lewis and Clark to tell our story when they're the ones who brought death and genocide to our people?"
Standing near the campfire Wednesday at Fort Thompson, re-enactor Dan Herman of Dimondale, Mich., said the controversy shocked the crew but all of them felt they should continue because of overwhelming public response.
"Everywhere we've gone along the river there's been a phenomenal reception," said Herman, a retired college dean.
Bowers, a former U.S. Army officer who serves as camp commander, said the re-enactors are not unsympathetic to past treatment of Indians.
"We are sensitive to their particular plight, from a historical perspective," he said as daylight waned on the 33-man crew and police watched over the camp from a nearby bay.
The re-enactors welcome civil dialogue, but the recent confrontation during a three-hour session with the Indian group was laced with threatening language, Mandrell said.
"They crossed the line with threats of physical violence and damage to our boats," he said.