NORTH DAKOTA - Some 200 years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition came, I arrive in North Dakota, on a red-eye special from Seattle. From the Bismarck airport where the thermometer reads 27 degrees, I drive south of town to a high bluff. A tower with a cross anchors the University of Mary. I turn at the sign reading "Circle of Cultures."
This "Signature Event" is one of 15 along the trail sponsored by the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemoration. These events began at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va., in 2003 and will end in St. Louis, Mo., in September 2006. Twenty-one federal agencies and five national partners help create these events, a mixture of national and local offerings. By the diligence and fancy footwork of our local Pacific Country Friends of Lewis and Clark, we here at the mouth of the Columbia will host Signature Event number 11 on Nov. 11-15, 2005. Carolyn Glenn and Karen Snyder with husband Bob Hamilton, leaders from Long Beach, also are attending the North Dakota event.
National Guardsmen guide me crisply around the jammed lots to a parking place at this small Benedictine college. I follow the crowd of young families, grade school groups, older folks from the local area, and the die-hard aficionados of Lewis and Clark. Lectures, exhibits, and displays are scattered all over the campus. As I sidle down the crowded hall, I spot Carolyn chatting on her cell phone.
I duck into a nearby classroom and sit with Bob and Karen. Local contractor Brian Bitner explains that earth lodges were built and owned by the Mandan women; they farmed and were able to stay in one place. His team built four earth lodges used for this event. His pictures are good and his explanations so cogent I am itching to see them.
I walk outside to a high bluff. Among the cottonwoods, the Missouri meanders broad and slow below. Fort Abraham Lincoln is visible across on the other side. The lands roll for miles off to the west. My friend Jeanie Dunham told me how she enjoyed night driving in North Dakota.
"I could look across and see headlights a 100 miles away, on another highway, on their way somewhere," she said.
I head to the earth lodges. We crowd in close on this day of chill wind to enjoy stories, songs, flute and drum around the warm smoky fire. Mandan/Hidatsa/Arikara tribal members perform. The haunting music of Keith Bear casts a spell on us.
When I leave, I pass a small campsite of men in period uniforms. They tend a fire, mend leather, play the fiddle, and talk about the keelboat or dugout canoes. Employed by the Army Corps of Engineers, these men also re-enact the Lewis and Clark "as a sideline." The National Park Service (Corps II) offers two tents; the first is decorated outside with prints of Karl Bodmer's magnificent paintings of Native Americans of the 1840s. Inside, we take a "listening wand" to accompany us on our journey past stops on the trail. Next door, "The Tent of Many Voices" becomes a large auditorium for experts. Their topics range from medicine and surveying to music and contracts. Re-enactors bring to life Ordway, Jefferson, York, Colter, Whitehouse and more. Other displays include a "virtual reality" tour of the journey, art exhibits, and a marketplace. Everything is free.
"This one has everything a signature event is supposed to have," Karen says. "It's a fantastic success!"
In the evening the locals put on a play they've written based on Clark's reminiscences. They work hard for accuracy, using dialogue from the journals. But by intermission, the Red Eye Special is catching up with me, and it's time to get some shut eye.
Carolyn is up early in the morning, full of to-do lists, people to see, and a date book full until 2006. An amazing journey they've been on, the local committee, since they began their ambitious project.
We head across the river to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park. In the early morning fog, we are among the few driving past a replicas of General Custer's house, and earth lodges to the riverside camp of the Discovery Expedition of Saint Charles.
Moving among the fires are men wrapped in woolen coats resembling Hudson Bay blankets. Many wear extraordinarily tall elaborate fur hats. A film crew mills around as they ready the weekly telecast to participating schools across the country and world. Their Web site is www.lewisandclark.net.
Carolyn introduces me to these living history enactors. From 2003-2006 they will travel in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark. They ride the river in a keelboat they have built, use pirogues and eventually dugout canoes as well. A few are descendants of Clark and Shannon, as Carolyn herself is a descendant of Sergeant Floyd.
Two hundred of the 300 members will participate in this three-year journey. Eight will make the entire journey. The others shuttle in and out weekends from their homes in 25 states. Their backgrounds include Boy Scouts (73 percent), Armed Forces (80 percent) and still employed (50 percent) as professors, insurance brokers, teachers, sawyers, blacksmiths and living history interpreters.
Tom Eire, one of the organizers from Lewiston, Idaho, brings me coffee under the cottonwoods where they are finishing breakfast. These fellows have a sense of humor, a sense of history, and a sense of themselves. Their profound interest in the Lewis and Clark has led them to travel the trail, to maintain it, and to volunteer locally for bicentennial observances. They realize they are not only reenacting the journey, but making history themselves.
Each one is a story in themselves; for example, Josh Loftus, 17, a descendant of and re-enactor of George Shannon, graduated early from high school in Belleville, Ill., so he could make this trip. He knows he can reach people his age.
From Bridgewater, N.J., comes Dick Prestholdt (portraying George Gibson) who is photographing it all as well as making Lewis and Clark calendars. Chuck Knowles of Moscow, Idaho, portraying the French voyageur Francois Rivet, works hard for preservation of the trail and in serving on the Governor's Council preparing for the next Signature Event, number 12, which will occur from June 14-17, 2006, in Lewiston, Idaho.
A blacksmith, Aubrey Williams, re-enacts John Shields the expedition's blacksmith; he hews replicas of the iron hatchets Shields made for the Mandans. John Hess, raised in Longview, portrays Patrick Gass. Walter Goetseh of Gallard, Mo., is proud to be "hugging his way across the continent. People are too serious," he says as he gives me a bear hug.
Generally, the group is well-received. Of the Indian tribes, Tom Eire says, "We meet with tribal governments and formally ask for permission to go through their lands. We are here to tell a story and also here to learn. We want to make it better for people of tomorrow."
There have been some incidents in South Dakota, with being called the Lewis and Clark expedition the beginning of genocide, and a "Stop Lewis and Clark" Web site."
Tom Eire shrugs it off, saying, "Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Most folks are welcoming and helpful. We have open hearts, ears, and minds."
I return to the University in time to catch Hasan Davis portraying York, Clark's slave. In the stuffy crowded lecture hall, he asks the young people to "dig deep" to stay attentive. The kids are terrific. In a gripping performance, he explores York's freedom during the journey and his slavery in "civilization."
The campus is full, nearly every lecture crowded. I hear Amy Mossett, the best-known enactor of Sacagawea, explain her Mandan history to a crowded lodge. Suddenly we hear children shrieking outside. "Are there bees?" Amy asks.
No, it's not bees, but tons of kids rolling over and over down a long sloping hill to the gym, screaming with pleasure. "Letting off steam," their teachers say, "before the long bus ride back home to Oaks. It's three hours away."
During this 10-day event, more than 50,000 (twice the number expected) visit this Circle of Cultures. School children make up at least half of the visitors at this event. Many are from rural schools whose visit is funded by the Bureau of Land Management. The adults say, "This is a once in a life time experience for the children. They'll always remember it." The fourth- graders perform plays they wrote, singing and throwing themselves into the action. They play to packed and appreciative crowds. This seems the true legacy of this event.
I rise early the next morning to drive north to Washburn and Fort Mandan. (As with Station Camp, the river has changed course so the original site lies underwater now.) The triangular-shaped fort replica has rooms a bit bigger than Fort Clatsop's, but it feels lonely here. An interpreter answers questions he's fielded thousands of times before. I leave the deserted fort in the cool fog.
I visit the spiffy interpretive center which features a collection of books from Lewis and Clark College of Portland. The exhibit on diseases, particularly smallpox is crushing. The Mandans were first devastated by it in the late 1700s which caused them to flee their village and move north. In 1847 the smallpox nearly wiped out the Mandans at Knife River, reducing the village from more than 1,500 to less than 150 people.
I drive the gravel road north, paralleling the Missouri, hoping to catch sight of Fort Mandan's original location. The road climbs up and down hills and into ravines. Near the river bottom, I round a curve to come upon dark shapes looming up ahead in the fog. As I approach, they scurry off the road, but I see the red bands on their glistening tails. They duck into the woods, well aware that this is hunting season and Thanksgiving is not far off - wild turkeys!
I travel through miles of empty gravel roads past deserted farms. Tractors and machinery line up outside in a row as if waiting for the farmer to get them ready for spring planting. It is a landscape aching for families, full of "posted no trespassing" signs in front of old wooden homesteads. Jeanie tells me folks on these "small" spreads had to auction things off or just shut the door and move to town. They just can't make it any more.
I head across the Missouri past the coal power plant spewing black smoke. The boat ramp nearby is the closest I get to the original Fort Mandan site. I turn off at Stanton, a small town with weathered houses. Huge black cut-outs of Sacagawea march on tall posts through town toward the original Mandan village.
The Knife River Interpretive Center is classy with its Indian design. The most helpful park ranger I've met introduces visitors to Sacagawea's village site.
I head right for the reconstructed earth lodge. A buffalo robe serves as the door. Inside in the dim light a round bull boat stands, light as an inner tube. A small fence with saddles resting on the rail shows where the families (two or three to a lodge) could keep a prize horse. "Cutting horses" that they could ride with leg cues while hunting buffalo considered were the best.
"They cleaned them all out in the morning," the interpreter tells me. "The Indians were very clean, taking sweat baths twice a week ... they said that the Lewis and Clark party smelled .... well, think about it ... the average man in a city like Philadelphia took a bath once or twice a year ... and these folks were out camping."
Before leaving this earth lodge, beautiful artifacts surround me (protected by security cameras). I pause, considering those who have gone before. A feeling of the air too close and death too near comes upon me as I flee this place.
Outside a mangy scarecrow guards a small garden of corn, gourds, and sunflowers, staples of the Mandans. A trail through tall golden grass meanders to a site where the villages once stood. The mown grass reveals the sunken impressions of earth lodges. Bone chips and shards lie scattered on the ground. A trail along the embankment above the Knife River shows whitened snags along the river, similar to the ones the Expedition had to dodge on the Missouri. They remind me of winter drift logs left on the hayfields of Grays River.
On the way out of town I stop at Glo's for a buffalo burger and coffee, both of which come plain, but with a warm smile and conversation.
I head south to Bismarck for the multimedia ballet, "The Encounter."
This is their first performance. The collaborators introduce their work. With a backdrop of pictures of the vast landscape and Native Americans then and now, the Lewis and Clark party dancers push upriver against the brute force of the Missouri. The photos shimmer and merge; then the dancers of the ballet company dance a straight line reel; Indian fancy dancers curve a circle of corn, green grass and shawl dances. Historian Clay Jenkinson, librettist, has one culture confronting another; sometimes it is with fear and shock; sometimes it is surprise and awe. He doesn't force a happy ending or harmonious mingling of all people.
The five-year-old Hidatsa/Arikara Coral Gillette, daughter of powwow dancers, performs her shawl dance with such joyful high kicks that she is a magnet whenever she is on stage.
After seeing many literal historical plays of the journey, this is a refreshing view that comes closer to offering us something new 200 years later.
One of the delights of the evening was talking to Amy Mossett, Mandan and Sacagawea re-enactor, who is seated next to Sister Thomas Welder, president of the University of Mary. I recall Sister Welder's remarks from the opening ceremony: "If there was ever a time we need to open our hearts to differences with honor, courtesy, and respect, it is now. What a remarkable opportunity we have been given - to make the circle whole - welcoming everyone in a new understanding of human relationships."