No complaint: Tribes join the celebration

Before plunging his keelboat into the Missouri River and heading for Indian country, Meriwether Lewis sent his mother a parting letter, telling her not to worry.

"My rout(e) will be altogether through tribes of Indians who are perfectly friendly to the United States,'" he wrote.

And he was right. Lewis and William Clark had few unpleasant encounters with tribes as they searched for the Pacific, handing out bronze medals to the chiefs along the way as symbols of their new brotherhood.

Two centuries later, the friendship still inspires strong feelings in the children of those who aided the expedition. In the massive American migration that followed, Lewis and Clark's Indian friends lost their land like most everyone else.

But with few exceptions, Indian groups are choosing not to protest the Lewis and Clark bicentennial the way many did Columbus' 500th anniversary in 1992. In fact, tribes along the expedition route have been actively planning the three-year national commemoration that begins January 18 at Monticello.

It is time, Indian organizers said, to tell the Lewis and Clark story from the other side.

"This wasn't some unsettled place before they got here," says Amy Mossett, a Mandan and Hidatsa Indian who leads the commemoration's group of 30 Indian advisers. "It was our home. We were farmers. We were traders. We had our own ceremonies."

Before 1803, the United States knew little about the great uncharted West other than rumors from beaver trappers and small-time explorers. For all anyone knew, it was home to wooly mammoths and blue-eyed Welsh-speaking Indians.

Jefferson ordered the expedition not only to find a river route to the Pacific, which didn't exist, but also to gather information about the people there.

"It very much was an intelligence mission," says Gary Moulton, a University of Nebraska professor who edited a 13-volume edition of Lewis and Clark's journals. "They were asking Indians how many fighting troops they had, who their friends were, and their enemies."

But the information Lewis and Clark brought back in their journals only scratched the surface of Indian culture, Mossett says. During the next three years, the bicentennial's Circle of Tribal Advisors will add some new chapters to the old story Americans heard in school.

There will be descriptions of life along the Plains before Lewis and Clark got there and renamed all the rivers. People will discuss what happened to groups like the Nez Percé, who were hustled off their native soil 50 years later, then lost much of their remaining land when gold was discovered there.

"There's a lot of opportunity here," says Justin Gould, a Nez Percé Indian working with the Tribal Advisors. "People need to realize we never left this place. We're not museum pieces."

University of Tulsa historian James Ronda says this part of the Lewis and Clark story has long been ignored.

"I've included it in talks I've given, and you should see the eyes glaze over," he says.

But Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery really was a model of diversity, Ronda said, with hunters from the hills of Kentucky, infantry companies on the frontier, French boatmen in St. Louis.

There was York, Clark's personal slave, who fascinated the Indians with his dark skin. [See essay on page 52.] George Drouillard, the Corps' main interpreter and best woodsman, was half Shawnee and half French. He knew several languages of the lower Mississippi, and he could converse in the complex sign language that was the lingua franca on the Plains.

And, of course, there was Sacagawea, the young Shoshone woman who led the explorers carrying a newborn son on her back. She was their passport through Shoshone-speaking tribes, and in the end, she was just as excited as they were to see the Pacific.

"This really was the great American road story," Ronda says.

Just getting messages to the tribes was a test of patience. With the Shoshone, Lewis and Clark would relay messages through four people, speaking first in English to Drouillard, who would translate to French for Sacagawea's husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, who would then relay the message in the Hidatsa language to Sacagawea, who would then deliver the message in Shoshone.

"Even then, a lot of times they'd be aided again by Drouillard's sign language,'' says Lewis and Clark scholar John Logan Allen.

The National Council of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial sought Indian guidance from the beginning in hopes of bringing some of these stories to the 15 signature events that will take place along the trail during the next three years.

"We realized we had an unparalleled opportunity to discuss issues that still confront native peoples," says Council President Robert Archibald. "There isn't just one story here."

But digging up the past among the Indian groups wasn't easy. There was the initial reluctance to working with the federal government. And as more groups started joining, there were differences in opinion about how to treat the past.

"The people to my west are still healing,'' says Dark Rain Thom, a Shawnee Indian with the Remnant Band of Ohio and a longtime member of the Tribal Advisors. "These are still people who are still hurting. Most of the people in the east have healed. We are still dismayed at what went on, but we're not consumed with anger."

Rod Ariwite, chairman of the Lemhi Shoshone, who claim Sacagawea as a descendant, said his tribe of about 400 has been completely forgotten by the others because they're sequestered on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in Idaho and don't have federal recognition of their own.

"It's like they're having a party for the bicentennial, and we haven't been invited,'' Ariwite says.

He bristles at the idea of Mossett, a Mandan and Hidatsa Indian, telling Sacagawea's story at the Monticello event. The Hidatsa, Ariwite said, stole Sacagawea from the Lemhi.

"It's just a tragedy– all of these people are still talking for my people."

Thom said every tribe has been invited to the commemoration, but Ariwite disengaged his tribe from the others about two years ago when he realized the Tribal Advisors were not going to make it a priority to push for the Lemhis' federal recognition.

Despite the problems, about 30 tribes are expected for the Monticello event. After the commemoration finishes in 2006, some tribes including the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara in North Dakota are building interpretive centers that will cater to tourists who follow the trail. And there is talk of creating a permanent organization of Lewis and Clark tribes that would serve as a national advisory committee.

In the final analysis, Mossett says, that's progress.

"What people learn about us right now is going to last forever," she says. "We see this as an opportunity to create lasting legacies."