My View

Monday, August 30, 2004

Minorities did not exist for Lewis and Clark adventure

It's strange how society can place constraints on how people think and act. It often makes you wonder whether we do something because we really believe it, or whether it's what appears right in the eyes of others.

A good case in point would be the journey of Lewis and Clark, or the Corps of Discovery at it was called then. We're just far enough away from the actual route the Corps of Discovery took to not give the dynamic duo of 200 years ago such intense media coverage today, but it's still worth considering.

If you're a journalist living anywhere along the route Lewis and Clark took, a good portion of your time will probably be spent writing about what happened 200 years ago today for the next couple of years. Well, it was news then and it's still news today, for the feats the Corps of Discovery accomplished were truly remarkable.

I just happen to subscribe to a West Coast newspaper, The Chinook Observer, published in Long Beach, Wash., located smack dab on the Pacific Ocean. There's a place there on the Long Beach Peninsula they call Clark's Tree where Lewis and Clark wintered over. It's very interesting to see what they're writing about out there now and compare that to what newspapers right here in the Midwest along Lewis and Clark's route are writing about at the same time. It makes you want to shout to the folks out in Washington, "Hey, you wouldn't believe what's coming your way."

Now I've canoed a pretty fair piece of the Missouri myself. It was back when I was in college and I thought it would be a good idea to take about a five-day canoe trip. It was April and the weather had been real nice so I asked my professors if it would be OK if I made the trip if I wrote a paper did some project about it. My photography and magazine writing profs had no problem with it, and to my surprise, the others didn't either. I think they all said yes to see how ingenious I could get about adapting a canoe trip to earth science or philosophy class.

Anyway, I and a partner set out on a nice, mid-April day. It was beautiful, with geese flocking overhead. It was great.

And then the blizzard hit. We were just far enough downstream that we were in the middle of nowhere. The snow and pelting rain and sleet went straight through our tent and there was nothing else to do but huddle under our canoe as we built a fire to try to stay warm. The only thing that kept us alive was that we 'borrowed' a mobile home from some people that used the place as a fishing cabin. I found out later from a lawyer that we probably wouldn't have been charged since we were forced to go into there under life-or-death duress.

As we lay huddled there for a couple days drying out, it really made me wonder how Lewis and Clark did it. We were just taking a canoe downstream a hundred or so miles. How in the heck did they take those heavy pirogues upstream so many miles?

That's a very interesting question. Also interesting is how the Corps of Discovery came about making some very major decisions.

Iowa has the ignominious fate of being the place where the only member of Lewis and Clark's entourage died. Sergeant Floyd died of a ruptured appendix, years before he could have been helped had he even had the services of an urban hospital and physician of his time.

So, the Corps of Discovery had an election to select Sergeant Floyd's replacement. And everyone voted, including a Black man.

Yes, a Black man voted.

The Corps of Discovery moved upriver and wintered over with the Mandans. Then it was on to the source of the Missouri where they named the Madison, Jefferson, and Gallatin Rivers, otherwise known as the Three Forks, Mont., area. It wasn't long after that when they figured out that they were lost.

They had to hire a 17-year-old Shoshone girl, Sacajawea, to show them the way. That's why her picture is on the dollar coins you get at the post office. People finally figured out what that girl had done was pretty significant.

The journey Lewis and Clark took made the moon shots of the late '60s and '70s look like garden parties. The fact that just about all of them made it all the way out to the Pacific and back is nothing short of a miracle. And the only member of the party who died did so from natural causes.

And it took a Black man's vote and a Shoshone girl's guidance to help make it all happen. They all needed each other to stay alive. I guess they didn't have time to worry about prejudice.