Thursday, April 20, 2017

Multnomah Falls and the Depth of William Clark

It's always been a two for one.  If you're traveling down the Columbia River Gorge and stopping at beautiful Multnomah Falls, then you also must pause to gasp at the magnificent views at the Vista House.  They're inseparable.  Sitting within a few winding and luscious miles of one another along historic Hwy 30 on the Oregon side.
In the same way, both Lewis and Clark are forever co-joined.  One name cannot be mentioned without the other, one life cannot be examined unless properly placed in the context of the former or latter.  The last night of Lewis's life was spent waiting for Clark to arrive and save him.  It's therefore difficult to split the two...but split we shall.
William Clark was an American explorer, map maker, soldier, slaveholder, plantation owner,  Indian agent, and territorial governor.  After the Louisiana Purchase, he served on the Corps of Discovery that claimed the Pacific Northwest for the United States.  Upon his return he was appointed governor of the Missouri Territory and later as Superintendent of Indian Affairs.  
Yes. Yes.  Yes.  Another amazing white guy.  We know this.  We know that when he died his long list of accomplishments AND his funeral procession were both a mile long.  But... what's really interesting to me are in between the great lines of a person's life.  What falls through the cracks.  What inside force penetrates the outer exterior of a person's life.  This is the real contemplation as we hike these historic narrative trails.  This is the real 'stuff' I'm interested in knowing.  
Clark retired from the military at the age of 26 because of 'health' reasons.  His older brother had been the highest ranking military officer on the western front, but was accused of being drunk on duty and stripped of his title and later wandered around in Indian Territory squabbling over debts and drinking.  Clark took care of him until he died of a stroke.  Death was always close to Clark, the love of his life, a Miss Hancock, to whom he had scratched her name onto trees and named rivers after her all through Montana and Idaho, died after bearing him six children.  He then married her cousin, who gave him three more children, until her death as well.  Clark protected them, just as he was entrusted with Sacagawea's children... and the little known Nez Perce child he fathered out of wedlock, the son by a sister of Chief Red Grizzly Bear.  Later, the Nez Perce ceded nine-tenths of their land to the American government and most died on reservations or in prison camps in Indian Territory.  
He was 33 when Lewis persuaded him to join the Corps of Discovery.  Clark spent most of the expedition making detailed maps and surveying the land, hunting for game, learning and observing Indian culture, and wandering off to explore.  It's astounding to me that he walked these trails.  Clark was never one for poetry; his writing is detailed and matter of fact.  He wrote of the Columbia:  "I deturmined to pass through this place notwithstanding the horrid appearance of this agitated but swelling, boiling, and whorling river in every direction which from the top of the rock did not appear as bad as when I was in it."  But walk them he did!  
During his tenure as Superintendent of Indian Affairs, so much of the Indian land was turned over to the U.S. government.  Though Indian diplomacy occupied much of Clark's attention, and recognition of history, language, and culture was ever present on his mind... he was still a soldier and bureaucrat... and though he tried to protect the Indian's way of life by introducing inoculations, having their portraits painted, their artifacts preserved in museums, and religious beliefs promoted... he also encouraged federal 'civilization' and 'educational' programs to change native lifestyles and the removal of Indians from ancestral lands to the reservations.  His views are then... very complex.  Even his slave York, who accompanied the Corps of Discovery, and who was instrumental in diffusing mistrust and apprehension upon first meeting Indian nations, was returned to slavery after his return to Missouri.  Clark even had York whipped for his poor attitude after the long journey together side by side.  The ingrained, systematic racism of that cannot be ignored.  So what do you do with all this.... this information in your head about a "Great Man's Life" ?  What do you do?
  Lewis and Clark paddled their boats right past this place.  They hiked this area.  They marveled at the splendor.  They braved the wilderness, endured the incredible elements of brutal weather, starvation, impossible navigation, animal attacks, hostile natives... and then they returned home as heroes ... and Lewis shot himself in the head and Clark systematically robbed whole generations of people from their ancestral lands.  
That's what history is... isn't it? A hike through the paths of past lives... lost on the trails of discovery of people and events that shaped our world.  I'm also a traveler.  I've been all over the world and it has changed me in ways and brought me to depths I cannot yet fathom.  Yet in following Lewis and Clark...following this Corps of Discovery... their trail back home.  I find I am also inseparable from them, their ideas, their observations... they are leading me... to an understanding of America, a deeper land, I must find.

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