Sunday, July 04, 2004

Kansas City Star - American Indian voices will be heard

By BRIAN BURNES The Kansas City Star

There's more than one side to the Lewis and Clark story.

With that in mind, the Kansas City bicentennial expedition commemoration, which begins Saturday morning with an opening ceremony at Berkley Riverfront Park, will include members of at least eight regional American Indian tribes who will participate in a Native American flag processional.

Leaders of the Kaw and Osage tribes, both of which once included the Kansas City area within their historic homelands, will speak.

Among those invited to attend are the governors of Missouri and Kansas.

Forums like this do not come along often for American Indian tribes, said Amy Mossett, a Mandan-Hidatsa tribal historian from North Dakota who is a member of the Circle of Tribal Advisors, an advisory board to the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

“For the tribes, this is a brief window of opportunity,” said Mossett, who has traveled the country advising tribes on the bicentennial. “I have asked the tribe members that if they have perhaps five days during this three-year commemoration, what would be their most important message?”

The “Journey Fourth” commemoration this weekend is the sixth “signature,” or sanctioned, Lewis and Clark bicentennial event, and many tribes so far have participated, Mossett said.

“The basic message presented so far is, ‘We are still here; we have survived everything; and our cultures are still intact,' ” she said.

Inclusivity amid assimilation

On Saturday in Berkley Riverfront Park, American Indian artisans will be present in the Native American Arts and Crafts Tent. Cultural presentations will be delivered by American Indian tribal representatives in the Tent of Many Voices, the portable auditorium operated by the National Park Service that will be stationed at Kaw Point, in Kansas City, Kan., through Sunday.

Behind this pageantry and cultural instruction lies a shared desire on two parties. First, there is the wish of organizers of “Heart of America: A Journey Fourth” to be inclusive. For years they have been careful to describe the events in Kansas City, Leavenworth and Atchison not as a celebration of the expedition but a commemoration.

But there was also the wish of American Indian tribes who perceived the bicentennial as a historic chance to tell their stories — not only to the rest of America but to their own younger members, as well.

“This is offering an opportunity to educate our young people in tribal history,” said Betty Durkee, historic preservation director for the Kaw tribe, today based in northern Oklahoma. “Because tribes were moved and members assimilated over 150 years, much of the culture has been lost.”

“We need to make way for our children,” added Dwight Howe, an Omaha and Ponca from South Dakota who was delivering cultural presentations this week in the Tent of Many Voices. “They need to know what happened from a Native American perspective.”

American Indian involvement is wired into the commemoration financing. Each “signature” event receives money from the National Park Service, and one of the criteria for the grants is significant American Indian involvement.

Still, executing such involvement has proved complicated on occasion.

Last autumn, leaders of Shawnee groups in Oklahoma announced they were not attending a “signature” event in Louisville, Ky., in part because of a misunderstanding over why a separate Shawnee group in Ohio had been invited long before.

Ultimately Shawnee representatives from both states attended.

In St. Charles, Mo., in May, another protocol issue surfaced. Among the various historical re-enactors on site in the city's Frontier Park were several who were not American Indians but were nevertheless portraying them.

These re-enactors were careful to explain they were portraying white men who had been abducted long before and had been reared according to Indian tribal culture.

Still, their presence concerned Leonard Maker, an Osage elder who was presenting programs nearby in the Tent of Many Voices.

“That's an issue with us,” Maker said. “Why can't we tell our own story?”

One of the same re-enactors also interacted with members of the Discovery Expedition of St. Charles, the official Lewis and Clark bicentennial re-enactors, during a mock court-martial proceeding. Larry McClain, the expedition's executive director, said that the interaction had not been planned and that the expedition works hard to respect the wishes of the Circle of Tribal Advisors, which has developed a list of protocol guidelines.

“That wasn't a scripted or scheduled thing,” McClain said. “We are very careful about that. There are a lot of people out there who are into Native American history, culture and spirituality. While that is wonderful, you will find people who will take it to extremes and who want to portray themselves as Native Americans.

“And you either are or you are not.”

Helping handbook

Such issues are not restricted to re-enactors. Chris Howell, a Pawnee who is chairman of the Native American subcommittee of the Kansas Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commission, often receives requests for guidance from teachers considering theatrical plays or pageants featuring American Indian characters.

Howell always advises against non-American Indians portraying American Indians.

“If they have a native child who would like to do that, that is one thing, as long as the dialogue isn't demeaning,” Howell said. “But the particular issue of having one ethnic group portray another is really something we need to rethink. That just does not go over very well with many tribal folks.”

It is such issues that helped convince Howell and others to produce a “Native American Resource Handbook.” Part of state grant funds received by the Kansas bicentennial commission was dedicated to its production. State officials took about 1,500 copies to the first Lewis and Clark “signature” event, in Virginia, in 2003.

“We made a real splash with that,” Howell said.

The success of the handbook convinced Howell and others to expand it, sell advertising and order a press run of 38,000. Today the free handbook includes histories of those tribes either in residence in Kansas or those who had significant histories in the state.