Lewis and Clark Re-enactors Stir Indian Debate

Lewis and Clark Re-enactors Stir Indian Debate

Fort Pierre, S.D. – It was 200 years ago that the Corps of Discovery led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first met the Sioux, the native people of the High Plains.

One of the most significant encounters happened here, where the Bad River, known then as the Teton, meets the Missouri River, which the corps had followed upstream from St. Louis. It was tense, according to expedition journals, but fighting was averted. The party that eventually opened up the West for the expansion of a young United States of America continued on.

On Saturday, a group of Lewis and Clark re-enactors heading back up the Missouri to commemorate the bicentennial and descendants of the Teton Sioux who today call themselves Lakota returned to the scene of the historic meeting.

Some Lakota came in buckskins and feathers to participate in the festivities, appearing in period dress to re-enact the events of 200 years ago before an audience at the local fairgrounds.


As a narrator told the story, the Native Americans and the Lewis and Clark re-enactors, dressed as soldiers and trappers, acted out the scene before a row of tepees.

But others came to protest what they call the ugly legacy of Lewis and Clark’s lauded expedition that also led to the eventual near-decimation of Western tribes.

Today, many Lakota struggle on poverty-stricken reservations such as South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, whose Shannon County is a perennial contender for poorest in the nation.

“We want people to know the true American history,” said Victorio Camp, 29, an organizer of the protest from Pine Ridge. “Not only the white history, but the history of all people in this country.

“Native people have been persecuted and oppressed. Our lands were taken away, the buffalo were slaughtered, and our whole way of life was destroyed. We feel that Lewis and Clark was the beginning of all of this.”

Walking through the fairground parking lot, the first thing spectators saw Saturday was about 20 Lakota, most younger than 30, holding staffs adorned with eagle feathers and signs, one of which read: “L + C = DAWN OF GENOCIDE.”

One man raised an upside- down American flag bearing the words: “This piece of (expletive) stole my country.” Drumming and chanting and the smell of burning sage filled the parking lot. Some tourists stopped to take pictures.

Some were sympathetic, but others said they were not going to change their minds about Lewis and Clark.

“I guess they have the right to do whatever they see fit, but I don’t like to see the flag upside-down and that written on it,” said Jan Busse of Highmore, S.D. “I think it’s perfectly good to celebrate the Lewis and Clark expedition and follow it all the way up the river. It was the future of this country.”

The Lewis and Clark re- enactors are nearly finished with this year’s installment of their bicentennial repeat of the original 1804-06 survey.

Last week, after meeting with Camp and others downstream in a southern South Dakota town, re-enactment organizers refused demands that they turn around, citing the support of many tribal governments in the area.

“There’s a spotlight on us going up the river,” said Jon Ruybalid, a member of the expedition whose members wear period clothing but also carry cellphones. “For us, it’s a great experience, to allow Native Americans to step into that spotlight to voice their grievances. Unless we continue going up the river, that’s going to stop.”

But that argument does not placate those Lakota who today see Lewis and Clark not as explorers but as military scouts who allowed for the subsequent massacres and depredations of native peoples across the West.

“We want it to come out that when Lewis and Clark explored the Missouri, they were actually mapping out the destruction of Indian Country,” said Floyd Looks for Buffalo Hand, a Lakota spiritual leader from Pine Ridge who did not make the three-hour journey to Fort Pierre on Saturday. “There never was an apology from the United States government.”

Although they were assailed as sellouts Saturday by protesters, some Lakota who performed in costume before the mostly white crowd said they agreed with the protesters.

“I don’t disagree with their viewpoint, but history is important,” said Sandy Little, who also lives on Pine Ridge. “We’re not here because we condone what happened, but it’s important that people remember history.”


Other Lakota re-enactors said they were being paid, and that they needed the work.

“I’m just here because it’s a job,” said John Black Bear Jr., who said he had blood relatives in the parking lot crowd Saturday. “It pays money. But it’s also part of myself, though. I’m just trying to represent myself. And they don’t put food on my table. I get paid to do this.”

The protesters say they will continue their public opposition of Lewis and Clark as the re-enactors continue upriver.