Commentary: An old debt, a new canoe

St. Louis Public Radio | By Robert W. Duffy
Published September 22, 2011 at 10:19 AM CDT

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2011 – For the past two years or so, I’ve heard my friends Rick and Lotsie Holton talk about a canoe they’d commissioned. Early on, when the subject of the canoe came up, I only half listened and assumed they were talking about some recreational or fishing-trip craft they were having built for their personal use. They are rather outdoorsy. I misjudged their commission, however: Their canoe and their intentions were considerably more serious.

On Saturday (Sept. 24), this truly spectacular canoe will be dedicated in ceremonies in Washington state. The vessel carries as freight two centuries-worth of unresolved conflict. Once the ceremonies are concluded and the canoe is given to its designated custodians, a delicate and fascinating form of settlement will be realized.

First, some background.

In the early 19th century, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on their celebrated expedition, launched by President Thomas Jefferson, to explore the vast western geography acquired by the United States in its purchase of the Louisiana Territory. Its significance is immeasurable, and as we’ll see, it continues to resonate.

The prelude to the journey began in Pittsburgh, where the expedition’s keelboat was built. Capt. Clark brought the boat down the Ohio and up to a place now covered by the Mississippi’s waters but located somewhere near what is now Wood River. Clark, Lewis and their men spent the winter of 1803-04 in the camp pitched there, upstream from St. Louis on the Illinois side of the Mississippi.

In May 1804, the actual voyage began when the explorers set out across the Mississippi, into the mouth of the Missouri and from there upstream from the St. Louis region to the western reaches. They proceeded to make a journey to the Pacific Ocean and back began, a voyage at once productive and arduous and vexed.

Fast forward to March 17, 1806, when the explorers were on their way back to St. Louis. On that day, Lewis and Clark made very interesting and quite strange entries in the journals kept by them on the Voyage of Discovery. The entries were made as the Corps of Discovery was finishing up a decidedly wretched winter at Fort Clatsop, located in the Oregon country near the mouth of the Columbia River. Lewis likened it to prison.

Lewis wrote, “…we yet want another canoe, and as the Clatsops will not sell us one at a price which we can afford to give we will take one from them in lue of the six Elk which they stole from us in the winter.”

In the same vein, Clark wrote, “We yet want another canoe as the Clatsops will not sell us one, a proposition has been made by one of our interpts and sever[al] of the party to take one in lieu of 6 Elk which they stole from us this winter …”

Clearly, because of the near-identical nature and even the petulant language of the entries, Lewis and Clark had reached some accommodation with history and conscience and achieved a rationalization for the truth of what was, in fact, grand theft. The Clatsops, a relatively small band of Chinook Indians, had paid the explorers back for the purloined elk with three dogs, which would be consumed as food by the corpsmen.

For two centuries, the question of who cheated whom has lingered and simmered.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with historian James Ronda, part of the research conducted for the PBS documentary, “Lewis and Clark, The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.”

Ronda was asked what the theft actually meant.

“The stealing of that canoe is an extraordinary moment,” he said. “After all, the winter at Fort Clatsop was the winter of discontent, the winter of frustration and anxiety and eventually anger. They need to find a way home. They know that part of going home means having canoes. They weren’t able to buy as many canoes. They’d tried trading and they discovered that the lower Chinook and the Clatsop people were in fact better traders than Lewis and Clark were. That they’d been out-tradered. And now they decide that they’re going to steal a canoe and for the first time, the expedition really violates its own moral code. Violates Jefferson’s instructions. Again, its own moral code. And the explorers steal one of Coboways’ canoes. (Coboway was the Clatsop chief who’d become a friend of the explorers.)

“It is an extraordinary moment. They were frustrated and angry and fearful and eager to escape a place that that Meriwether Lewis saw as a prison. He said at one point that he was counting the hours ’til his escape from that damp mildewed prison. And stealing a canoe seemed a small price to pay to escape from the prison. It was an extraordinary moment.

“And I think it was also an emblematic moment. Here were the outsiders breaking their own rules. And then, going home. An emblematic moment because it pointed to the future. That there would be more thefts, thefts that could be easily justified as other strangers coming from the East would steal things. Land, resources, water and lives. And then justify that by saying that these people were not real people after all. That we could take from them whatever we needed for our own purposes.

“And so this canoe theft was in so many ways, not just an extraordinary moment, but it was also, I think, a moment that pointed to the future.”

In 2006 – far into the future – Meriwether Lewis was found guilty of theft in a mock trial put on by the Lewis & Clark Law School and the Oregon Historical Society in Portland, Ore. The verdict was rendered by a jury. In 2007, a similar trial was conducted at the University of Missouri School of Law at Columbia. That trial ended in a hung jury. It had voted 7-5 to acquit.

Lotsie Holton (Carlota Clark Hermann Holton) has a special connection to all of this. She is a seventh generation descendent of Capt. Clark.

Ray Gardner has a special connection to all of this. He is tribal chairman of the Chinook Indian Nation and a descendent of the Native Americans from whom the canoe was stolen.

The Holtons and Ray Gardner met during the bicentennial of the Voyage of Discovery, and from that meeting grew the notion of a reparation to be made by the Clark family, and the commissioning of the canoe.

Rick Holton has dug deep into the lives and traditions of Native Americans and has been powerfully moved by the yield of his research. In 2010, in fact, he served as a volunteer consultant to the Beacon during our first Festival, when a group of us visited Sugar Loaf Mound on South Broadway. We decided to make it somewhat more than a sight-seeing trip.

Rick Holton introduced us to Eve Pearlmutter, who is of Native American ancestry. She officiated in a ceremony of cleansing when we visited Sugar Loaf. Pearlmutter has worked with the Holtons on the canoe project as it progressed, and has been an invaluable and passionate spokesperson for the ceremonial weekend.

As time went on, the Holtons became stunningly aware that stealing a canoe from native people had considerably more significance than having your SUV swiped. In conducting routine day-to-day business, canoes such as this one can be described as utilitarian, although extraordinarily so. But actually, such canoes are not only monumental in size but also accommodate a wealth of tradition and an enormous spiritual cargo.

It is no aluminum two-person summer-camp craft. Built by John McCallum, owner and boatwright of Applegate Boatworks, Veneta, Ore., it is 36 feet long and 6 half feet wide amidships. The design of the canoe is authentic and traditional, although contemporary materials such as plywood and fiberglass tape were used in its construction. For an informative and fascinating account of the construction, go to the, and click on The Canoe.

Beginning today (Thursday, Sept. 22) and continuing through Saturday, Clark family members and friends of Clarks, and Native American men and women whose stake in this is powerful and transcendent, will come together for tours of historic sites and, most powerfully, for ceremonies surrounding the canoe and the presentation of it from the Clark family to the Chinooks.

In the big scheme of things, redressing a 200-year-old wrong with a canoe, however magnificent, may seem a minuscule entry in the ever-growing list of man’s inhumanity to man.

But every now and then, such an entry acquires the prominence of the majuscule, and distinguished by its being written on the positive side of a line that separates generosity and sincerity from mendacity and arrogance.

Furthermore, as so often happens in ceremony, in which material objects are raised up as symbols of inward and spiritual grace, and rather than being evanescent the object is consecrated and vital. As such, it operates as would a pendulum, arching back in time as a means of touching some transgression, then proceeding forward, signaling movement ahead toward redemption.

The new canoe, built so sturdy and strong, and endowed by ceremony with a special hallows, can be and should be a symbol of a Greater Craftsmanship, in which something shiny and new is a means of repairing something haunted, and very, very broken.

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