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Five-year-old Donald Stanger joins his dad and the other members of the Quequesah drum group from the Flathead Reservation on Wednesday in the opening ceremonies of the three-day conference "A Confluence of Cultures: Native Americans and the Expedition of Lewis and Clark" at the University of Montana.
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

American Indian perspective takes center stage at UM Lewis and Clark bicentennial conference

He hasn't read the journals, hasn't been much of a student of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but Joseph McDonald has seen the effects of the continent's opening to white settlement on his people.

"Why didn't Mr. Jefferson send them to Antarctica or to Greenland?" McDonald quipped Wednesday at the start of a three-day conference at the University of Montana, "A Confluence of Cultures: Native Americans and the Expedition of Lewis and Clark."

The founder and president of Salish Kootenai College in Pablo, McDonald quickly conceded that his Scottish ancestors - Archibald and then Angus McDonald - left Scotland for America and eventually followed in the footsteps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, settling in Montana Territory.

His Salish ancestors, though, saw almost everything about their lives change in the wake of their encounter with the expedition at Ross's Hole (near present-day Sula) in the late summer of 1805.

"At the time, we had no unemployment, no alcoholism or drug addiction, no prison population, divorce was unheard of, diabetes was unheard of, our natural resources were so extensive there had been no environmental degradation," he told more than 500 people at the symposium's opening session. "We all spoke the same language."

Of course, some things have not changed: "We loved to gamble, even then," McDonald said. "And then, too, we lived at constant threat of war."

McDonald recounted all that has befallen the Salish, Kootenai and Pend Oreille people since 1805, culminating in Chief Charlo's slow, sad march from the Bitterroot Valley to the Jocko in 1892 - then the Flathead Indian Reservation's opening to white homesteaders in 1908.

But both McDonald and Flathead cultural leader Tony Incashola urged conference-goers to look ahead, not back, as they consider the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's trek west from St. Louis to the Pacific.

"We can't change what has happened," said Incashola, "but we can change the future for ourselves, for our children and for those yet to come. And we can hold onto those values that were handed down from generation to generation."

"Diversity is a blessing, not a curse," Incashola counseled. "Diversity is something that the creator gave us. We have a responsibility to care for those unique values given to every culture."

"We need to take an inventory of the positives in our lives," said McDonald, who is on the president's Board of Advisors on Tribal Colleges and Universities. "We need to learn the tribes' side of the story, and put it in a form that will be passed along to others."

McDonald said he hopes this week's conference - the first major observance of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial in the state of Montana - will inspire more Indian scholars to research and write tribal histories.

"I hope some of you in the audience will become historians," he said.

Said Incashola, "Our history has been told by everybody but us."

The Confluence of Cultures effort, in fact, included a call for research papers to all 33 tribal colleges nationwide. Dozens of students and faculty members responded and are in Missoula to present their work: papers on the myth of the chief, the treatment of women by the expedition, bison culture, Indian law, the legacy of William Clark, food and native diplomacy, tribal and expeditionary medicine, tribal place names, and Indian sketch maps.

More than 70 such presentations are planned Thursday and Friday, followed by evening performances by tribal dancers, actors, storytellers and singers. (The conference is open to the public for a $40 registration fee, payable at registration tables on the third floor of UM's University Center.)

"What you learn, take it with you and share it with others," advised Incashola. "And remember, as you travel across this country, that you are traveling through Indian Country, that all of these places were like a big living room to us, like a big kitchen. They were, and are, our home."

Reporter Sherry Devlin can be reached at 523-5268 or at

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