Our Lewis and Clark story beats theirs

BISMARCK, N.D. — Mike Schwartz stops paddling his aluminum canoe down the Missouri River and gazes at the tall mud and sandstone bluff, wondering just what Meriwether Lewis and William Clark must have thought when they first spied it 204 years ago.

It is a "buffalo jump," a cliff off which natives drove buffalo to their death near winter. Here, they left the frozen carcasses along the Missouri's banks as a winter freezer for their subsistence meat.

Perhaps Lewis and Clark ate some of that cliff meat while surviving the hard Dakota winter of 1804 on their way toward wherever it was they were going.

"Paddling around here, you can't help but think of the romance of it all," says Schwartz, a data analyst from Bismarck. "You can't help but think what was going through their minds when they hit this country."

This slice of time is the heart of the Dakotas' version of the Lewis and Clark story, and the only thing it has in common with Oregonians' Columbia River-centered version is the provincialism through which they see the story.

Dakotans don't care that the whole point of the Corps of Discovery expedition was reaching the Pacific, as it did in 1805 at the mouth of the Columbia.

As far as they're concerned, the addition of Sacagawea to the expedition in North Dakota and the hospitality of the natives during below-zero conditions in the winter of 1804-05 are more compelling than anything Lewis and Clark did on the Oregon side of history.

It's as if both ends of the trail are more than willing to yadayadayada each other's stories away to make more room for what happened in their own backyards.

"We all feel like we're at the center of the Lewis and Clark story," says David Borlaug, head of the North Dakota Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center outside of Bismarck that's within spitting distance of Fort Mandan, where the adventurers spent more time than any other place on the trail.

"I'm sure you people in Oregon feel the same way," Borlaug says with a grin. "Unfortunately, we in North Dakota are the ones who are correct."

Along the banks of the Missouri, a large and meandering stream that flows through the Great Plains and pothole country, Lewis and Clark remain at the forefront of regional identity.

Dakotans are quick to recount how the Corps of Discovery left St. Louis in 2004 and headed up the Missouri into uncharted wilderness in hopes of quenching President Thomas Jefferson's thirst for an overland Northwest Passage to the Pacific.

The crew ended up here that November as winter descended upon the frozen prairie, with the expedition out of food and helplessly inept at hunting. The men built Fort Mandan, shamelessly named after a local tribe to help butter up the natives, and begged for help.

Mandan Chief Sheheke extended his hand of friendship to the visitors by saying, "If we eat, you shall eat. If we starve, then you must starve also."

This is where the corps encountered its first grizzly bear and where Lewis came back through on his way home in 1806 with his rump in the air, wounded in a friendly fire incident.

There even is a bumper-sticker mentality to it all.

"Lewis and Clark Slept Here — 146 times" is a mantra at Borlaug's center.

So what if Lewis and Clark actually made it down the Columbia to their final destination and made exploration history in Oregon? Who cares that they identified and named dozens of plants and animals on this side of the Rockies, creating taxonomy that remains relevant today in the Northwest?

Apparently, 146 days of sleeping off winter beats all that in North Dakota.

"People," Borlaug says, "can be intensely proud."

When either end of the trail actually does acknowledge the other's contribution, memories become quite selected.

Oregonians like to point out that Lewis and Clark's crew members caught venereal diseases during their, ahem, winter vacation at Fort Mandan. Dakotans quickly recall how Lewis chronicled that the ocean natives swore like the sailors with whom they earlier traded.

The spin can become dizzying.

"The way we look at it is that without our story, you guys in Oregon wouldn't have a Lewis and Clark story," says Mark Zimmerman, a representative from the North Dakota Department of Tourism and a student of Lewis and Clark's east-side history.

Still, the intensity of ownership of the Corps of Discovery story remains mainly a tiff among family members.

Outside the trail, the nuances of the saga are almost gone. Often, Borlaug says, the story is a few paragraphs in a fourth-grade history book.

"Those of us on the trail really understand how we're all woven together," says Borlaug, who headed the nation's Lewis and Clark festivities across the trail this decade.

Though all parts of the Lewis and Clark story are equal in the big picture, there still is the sense on both ends of the trail that some parts are more equal than others.

"There definitely is that sense of provincialism along the trail," Borlaug says. "The irony is that Lewis and Clark really were just passersby. They weren't provincial to anyone.

"They were just two guys from Virginia moving on through," he says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 776-4470, or e-mail mfreeman@mailtribune.com.

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