Editorial Inspired From the Trail

From the Trail
Column by Rob McDonald

I was barefoot, wearing pajama bottoms and a t-shirt as I walked to the hotel lobby to buy a candy bar. I thought my work as a journalist was done.

All week, I shared the lobby with some of the nation's leading historians, costume experts and diehard scholars of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Charlottesville, Virginia was filled with a who's who list of history buffs who mingled with state and tribal tourism groups.

It was Jan. 18 and I had just transmitted the last story for my newspaper about the first national event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the expedition.

Like the 3,000 people who arrived at the back lawn of Thomas Jefferson's home that Saturday in Virginia, I nearly froze and was exhausted by the day.

All week long, people sat through sessions on Lewis and Clark lore, literature and legend.

And all through the week, people heard passionate talks by Indians and non-Indians who said that now was the time to complete America's first story.

Now was the time for everyone to hear and understand the missing Indian perspective from the many Indian nations whose stories are mostly untold.

As an American Indian journalist, I'd never seen a mainstream event embrace the Native view so strongly.

This felt like a turning point, even history in the making.

I wondered if I was getting carried away at thinking that this could be the moment in time when educators and historians truly realized how much they have marginalized the Indian perspective in their teachings.

Even as a journalist in the early '90s, I was discouraged from writing about Native events. The doings I knew to be important were brushed aside before editors could even comprehend the significance of events. Every Indian journalist in the mainstream knows this experience.

But this time, finally, the Indian leaders took their place alongside non-Indian leaders. Tex Hall, President of the National Congress of American Indians, stressed the value of what happens when Natives are involved early in a project.

For at least 200 years, on the largest and smallest levels, Indian people have often looked on as non-Indian leaders would prop up token Indian board members added late to projects just so they could say the Indian perspective was at the table.

Not this time.

As Roberta Conner puts it of the Umatilla tribe said, "We are the story.''

Conner, the director of the Tamastslikt Cultural Institute on the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Oregon, helped define what this event meant to the Native.

This is not a celebration. But it is a chance to get the Native story out before the world.

"We're not just trying to say one thing," Conner said. "We're trying to say there are many nations, many voices, many messages."

Conner fully expects that at some point someone will protest and label the tribes involved as sellouts, a risk she's willing to take.

"We learned a long time ago if you're not at the table when negotiations take place, it's very difficult to make your case,'' Conner says.

I knew the Indian voice was exploding out before the world. I had done my job to capture it in daily new stories. I thought my work was finished.

As I went through my ritual of rewarding myself with a candy bar, I couldn't help but hear a group of men talking. They were familiar faces who had been in the lobby all week, attending events, comparing notes.

"Did you all hear the message today?'' said a non-Native man. "It's all about the women and the Indians. A white guy doesn't stand a chance.''

None of his peers disagreed or countered his views. I put my candy bar in my pocket because it wasn't reward time yet.

I caught the eye of a fellow in the group, my throat a little tense, and I said, "I should put that in my news story.''

The group kind of froze, unsure if they should move or respond, like a kid caught saying a four-letter word. I walked away disgusted.

I found little comfort in my Snickers bar.

My comfort came in knowing that the Indian story must truly be coming out if white are wringing their hands at being asked to share the spotlight. Ready or not, here comes the rest of the story.

(Rob McDonald is a reporter in Spokane, Wash., at The Spokesman-Review. He's enrolled with the Confederated Tribes of the Salish and Kootenai in Western Montana. He can be reached at robm@spokesman.com)

About "Many Nations"

News Stories

Images from the Trail

Lewis and Clark Dispatches

Editorial: "From the Trail"

Fiction: "Inspired by the Trail"

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