Six Metaphors for the Legacy

Page 5 of 5


When I was thinking about this symposium, I was thinking about an essay that I've been wanting to write called "Six Similes in Search of an Epic." In the Homeric world there are all these great similes which are the heart of Homer's achievement. Virgil dutifully tried to recapitulate that, and Milton, and every other epic writer. The American West doesn't really have an epic, but there are some great moments and incidents that would lend themselves to an American epic. My favorite of all of them is from the Custer debacle at the Little Big Horn. There's an account of the battle from an Indian point of view by Wooden Leg. He was asked how long did it take to wipe out Custer and all of his troops? He was silent for a minute, and then he said, "Well, about as long as it takes to eat a snack." That's just such a marvelous moment, because it deflates the heroism of Custer and the Indian wars. We think Custer! the boy general, hero of the Civil War, the daring dawn raider of Indian villages, with his Homerically long hair flying behind him as he leads his troops into battle. And yet Wooden Leg's view was, "well, you know, it required about as long as it takes to eat lunch to go kill them all." The simile creates a massive imbalance between the cultural attachment we have created for this story and the nonchalance of Wooden Leg. It is even more powerful because it belongs to what is known as primary rather than secondary (literary, self- conscious) epic. In other words, we are dealing with the oral traditions that come straight out of the episode, not a carefully crafted re-creation benefiting from reflection and historical synthesis.

I would like to propose a few metaphors for the Lewis and Clark story, not in any definitive way, but merely to help us all think about the legacy of the expedition.

One—A pebble in a pond

When a pebble falls in a pond, if it's a calm pond, it creates dramatic concentric circles that begin to dissipate as they move farther and farther from the point of origin. If the water is unruffled, those concentric circles will find their way miles to the end of the lake. You've all seen Hallmark Card photographs of this. According to this metaphor, Lewis and Clark arrive, it's a dramatic moment in the history of the Shoshone or Walla Walla or Oto, and then they depart as quickly as they came. The concentric circles of the expedition's influence and legacy play themselves out for a period of time, more if the tribe's world is unruffled when the newcomers arrive, less so if it is ruffled by more pressing concerns, but the influence does not continue forever. There was calm. Then an event occurred in the center of the tribe's pond, as if dropped from the sky, and then the impact played itself out in an entirely natural way over a limited period of time. That's one possible metaphor for Lewis and Clark.

Two—The fatal moment

It comes from Alan Morehead, who has written extensively about "first encounters" between more industrial and less industrial peoples, or more advanced and less advanced peoples, depending on one's perspective. It's a marvelous metaphor. His metaphor is not from the Great Plains, it's actually from the South Pacific. Morehead spoke of, "that fatal moment when a social capsule was broken open." First contact with the Shoshone, first contact with Tahitians, first contact with people of the Solomon Islands. Moorhead is describing the moment when representatives of a very different culture suddenly appear, and their appearance cracks the indigenous culture, and that culture is cracked forever. Something innocent, or at least intact, is lost forever. The indigenous culture is now "dis-covered," and the fissure has the same effect that a crack in an egg creates. The crack can be sealed, imperfectly, but the crack is now a fact of life and nothing is ever quite the same after that crack.

Three—Paradise lost

The third one has had a lot of play during the Bicentennial and I think it's pretty unfair, actually. The third metaphor is the metaphor of a tsunami. You heard a lot of this early on in the Bicentennial, that before Lewis and Clark, the West was the Garden of Eden, environmentally and culturally, and then Lewis and Clark came. The expedition represents a kind of disastrous wave that shattered and engulfed the American West. The Indian cultures of the West were thriving when Lewis and Clark arrived, and they were perfectly adapted to their environment. They had their own science, advanced social structures, technologies that not only resonated with their cultural norms, but that embodied cultural restraining energies that made Indian cultures sustainable. At the first national signature event, at Monticello, there were a number of panels that came back to this theme again and again. Everything was fine until Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark up the Missouri.

Needless to say, I don't think that can be true given what we've already talked about in terms of native attitudes towards Lewis and Clark, native sophistication about trade and sovereignty issues, native capacities for cultural adaptation and the usual give and take of human nature, and native good sense about the transience of Lewis and Clark. It seems clear that the tsunami metaphor satisfies a national cultural need for both Indians and non-Indians. We all tend to aggrandize the pre-contact world and we degrade the post-contact reality. The Eden myth—though it clearly has some basis in fact, at least in terms of relative impacts on the surrounding environment—serves in a double capacity for non-Indians. Primarily it allows us to process or imperial guilt for the forceful Europeanization of North America, but it also in a sly way makes us feel good about the potency of the culture we currently choose to decry. In other words, tsunami has a clandestine capacity to make white people feel triumphant, even if we like to distance ourselves from that very spirit. And for Indians, the tsunami metaphor not only does the crucial work of envisioning a prelapsarian world of innocence, a Native American golden age, but it provides a neat apologia for whatever is wrong in Indian country today. It's not Indians who have created the intractable problems of Indian America; they are resolutely doing what they can to survive the legacy of conquest.

For compelling enough reasons, however suspect they are historically, the tsunami metaphor serves both cultures pretty well at the present time. We posit a virgin land and an innocent people, and then we reckon with the power-hungry, aggressive new guys on the block who shattered that paradigm. It turns out that the lost innocence of Indians is our lost innocence too. "In the beginning," wrote John Locke, "all the world was America." It's a form of the old noble savage myth, and it's a highly unfair one, but it has a lot of potency. In the Lewis and Clark world, there's a lot of nostalgia. And if you've watched the Bicentennial unfold, Indians—sometimes by themselves but more often by invitation—have frequently enough "suited up" as creatures locked in time. It's an odd and somewhat troubling phenomenon. One of the people I most respect is Amy Mossett who is a Mandan woman. We go to Rotary Clubs together and we have coffee together and we're on planes together, both dressed in 21st century American clothing. Yet when there's a Lewis and Clark event she often suits up in a buckskin dress and she looks perfectly gorgeous and everyone wants to get close to her. They would be sorry if she showed up in a business suit. Well, that's so uncanny if you think about it, that Indians in the Bicentennial are encouraged to suit up as creatures out of another time. She doesn't go to the grocery store in her buckskins. We all get why it happens, and why it represents a continuing linkage to the authentic pre-industrial culture, and we know why it's important, but it's also troubling in a way that is difficult to articulate. It teases out a really deep problem in white-Indian relations. Amy Mossett talks about this and she increasingly chooses not to make appearances in her buckskins, but in what might be called "western wear," what, if a non-Indian wore it, would be called an "Indianized" form of western dress.

Four—Seeds of change

According to this trope, Lewis and Clark planted a seed—let's call it a seed of change—and it didn't sprout immediately. Without always knowing what they were doing, the explorers planted a few seeds that sprouted over time. Some of them flourished and changed the world that the expedition traveled through and some of the seeds didn't flourish. Lewis and Clark as cultural sowers seems a little better metaphor than a tsunami to me because if Lewis and Clark had never come at all—let's just say there had never been Jefferson or a Lewis or a Clark—would Portland be the same or different? Would Bismarck be the same or different? It's hard to think that there would be no Bismarck if there were no Meriwether Lewis. Or no strip mining, or no interstate highways or no Burger King restaurants.

It's a little bit like the Homeric Question. In Homer studies there's an endless debate about whether Homer is actually the author of the Homeric poems. We know we have the Iliad and the Odyssey and they're said to be by an epic poet named Homer, but increasingly it's pretty clear that the composition of the two great epics is more complicated than we used to think. The most famous statement about this was made by an English classicist. As he put it, "the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by Homer or by another chap by the same name." In other words, if Lewis and Clark hadn't come at all, it would have been Peter and Charles, or Hancock and Dickson, or Evans and Novak, but whoever it was—particularly if it was an Anglo-American party—would have planted much the same seed. To give the two actual individuals Lewis and Clark (or the men they led, or even represented) so much agency of legacy is a form of historical fallacy. Yes, of course, there's a direct line of legacy, and they were quite clearly running Jeffersonian software. Jefferson is the genius behind the expedition. That matters. It's not Madison, it's not Adams, and it's not James Wilkinson, and it's not Zebulon Pike. It's Jefferson's brainchild.

What if they had never come? How would things have unfolded differently? What are other possibilities for the unfolding of the American West? How important are Lewis and Clark? It's possible that they're merely representative, rather than determinative, if that makes any sense. In other words, there was going to be a Europeanization of North America one way or the other, and Lewis and Clark are not much more than early harbingers of that Europeanization. Absent Lewis and Clark, that process would have unfolded more or less as it did. It's an interesting question—if Jefferson had been John Marshall instead, or if John Marshall had been the third president of the United States, with his more generous view of native sovereignty, who knows?

Five—The hand in the basin

This one comes from my favorite writer, John Donne. According to this metaphor Lewis and Clark essentially had no impact. They came, they went, maybe they sullied things a little but the West sealed up the minute they walked out of the picture. It wasn't cracked—it wasn't planted with anything, it wasn't devastated by their power, it just opened and then it closed. Here's the gorgeous passage from a 1622 sermon that Donne preached at St. Paul's Cathedral in London. I'll just pick it up in midstream. He says, What if God had left thee a Papist, a Catholic:

as though that God hath done so much more, in breeding thee in his true Church, had done all this for nothing, thou passest thorough this world, like a flash, like a lightning, whose beginning or end no body knows, like an Ignis Fatuus in the aire, which does not onely not give light for any use, but not so much as portend or signifie any thing; and thou passest out of this world, as thy hand passes out of a basin of water, which may be somewhat the fouler for thy washing in it, but retaines no other impression of thy having been there.

Isn't that beautiful? You pass out of this world, "as thy hand passes out of a basin of water, which may be somewhat the fouler for thy washing in it, but retaines no other impression of thy having been there." That's gorgeous—and of course from a Christian point of view, terribly unsettling. John Donne was a great poetic genius and his 17th century sermon may help to illuminate the legacy of Lewis and Clark.

I don't think Donne's metaphor fully applies, either. I think Lewis and Clark's impact was greater than that, but it's worth putting the basin trope in the mix of possibilities. Certainly if Lewis and Clark had not been harbingers, if they had visited Indian Country in the same sense that a handful of American astronauts visited the Moon in the 1960s and 70s, a brief proud presence and then a complete withdrawal without the mass of humanity following in their wake, Donne's view might be correct. But they were harbingers of a fur rush that made it impossible for the basin to shrug them off.

Six—The bug in the board

Finally, I want to modify the seed metaphor, as refashioned by Henry David Thoreau. Many of you know this famous late passage from Walden, about how our lives bear fruits in ways we can't anticipate and that there may be long periods of dormancy before those fruits are borne. This is quintessential Thoreau:

Every one knows the story which has gone the rounds of New England, of a strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts—from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn. Who does not feel his faith in a resurrection and immortality strengthened by hearing of this? Who knows what beautiful and winged life, whose egg has been buried for ages under many concentric layers of woodenness in the dead dry life of society, deposited at first in the alburnum of the green and living tree, which has been gradually converted into the semblance of its well-seasoned tomb—heard perchance gnawing out now for years by the astonished family of man, as they sat round the festive board—may unexpectedly come forth from amidst society's most trivial and handselled furniture, to enjoy its perfect summer life at last!

So maybe the Lewis and Clark story embodies that metaphor; there's a hidden bug at the center of it. Wouldn't it be ironic if a bug metaphor governs this story and all this time we've been imprecisely talking about buffalo and grizzly bears, keelboats and bull boats, Dr. Rush's thunderclappers and guns, how many elk they killed and how many pounds of meat they ate per day, and where they camped on such and such a night, and whether the lead they used for bullets was from a mine in Missouri or Kentucky? All these are interesting questions. Unfortunately, they have tended to dominate the Bicentennial much more than is sensible. I think the great Thoreau would say, maybe the bug, the true seed of this story has yet to surface. At times the Bicentennial has come close. I think there have been some sublime moments in the Bicentennial and some of them have been here at Lewis and Clark College and in the splendid public radio series we produced. Mostly, though, I am struck at the end of this five-year commemoration by the level of superficial discourse it has generated and by how little, on the whole, the American community, including the presenter community, has searched for the miraculous insights that have been fighting to get to the surface.

I think that Thoreau's metaphor is a really very promising. I think that it embodies what Thomas Slaughter urged in his interesting, but imperfect, book on Lewis and Clark, Exploring Lewis and Clark, and what David Nicandri has been advocating in his fresh analysis of Lewis and Clark, and it's what James Ronda and John Logan Allen have been insisting upon. In different ways, these humanities scholars have all be saying the same thing: now that we have a definitive thirteen volume national edition of Lewis and Clark, edited by Gary Moulton of the University of Nebraska, and the text has been established for our time, and we have before us all the journal voices, all the ones that are extant, and new letters have been found in Louisville, and we're ready, for the first time, to listen respectfully to the wide range of oral memories that Native Americans have been rescuing from oblivion, we need to explore Lewis and Clark with fresh critical eyes. We're not at the final dispensation of the text, as the Bicentennial ends, but we're a lot closer than we've ever been before. At the very least, now we have a standard text that can be relied upon. Now we need that device from the Men in Black movies—we need to take that pen-like, laser-like device, and click it, and blank out the Lewis and Clark sectors of all of our brains so that we no longer have any notion of who Lewis and Clark were. And once we have become Jefferson's and John Locke's tabulae rasae, we need to explore the journals with fresh souls as if we were reading Hamlet for the first time, as if we were reading Great Expectations or Anna Karenina or Thoreau or John Donne for the first time.

If we could do that, if we could erase our myth concepts of Lewis and Clark and actually look at the text as if it had just been unearthed from a trunk in an attic in St. Paul or Louisville, and let it tell us what it needs to tell us, coupled with native oral traditions—which are increasingly central to the understanding of this story—and a deep broad environmental awareness, and a whole range of bioregional understandings that were unthinkable in the time of Donald Jackson—if we could do that and dispossess ourselves of the things that trip us up, that Thoreauvian bug might be able to crawl out of the table of Lewis and Clark, and it might reawaken something really extraordinary in our national consciousness.