Transcript of talk by Ian Frazier
[INTRODUCTION BY CLAY JENKINSON; APPLAUSE AND THANKS]
IAN FRAZIER: It's been really fun to spend these last few days with such distinguished experts not only on Lewis and Clark, but on the history of the west. If you have a question on those subjects, somebody has an exact answer instantly. It's a kind of heavenly feeling.
Well, we have talked a lot about Lewis and Clark. In the course of this bicentennial commemoration and as I've been preparing to come here, I have learned a lot of things. I've learned how many dogs the Lewis and Clark Expedition ate: 194. And what happened to the live animals that the expedition sent back east: all of them died except for a magpie and a prairie dog. And soon after arrival, the magpie died and the prairie dog survived A single prairie dog. And what happened to Sacagawea's belt of blue beads that she wore as they went west? Nobody knows what happened to that.
As I thought of Lewis and Clark, I remembered some years back when our family was living in Missoula, Montana, and our daughter was in elementary school. Lewis and Clark went right through present-day Missoula along the Bitter Root River, so naturally the grade school curriculum included study of the expedition. I believe they studied one aspect or another of the expedition every year. One day at the end of fourth grade, our daughter came home from school and announced to her mother and me that she never wanted to hear another word about Lewis and Clark. And afterward, I heard that opinion seconded by other friends in Missoula. I have found it is not an uncommon opinion among people who have been through the Missoula Public Schools.
My sympathies on this are divided. I feel for my daughter and others like her, but even more I sympathize with Lewis and Clark. We need our history and in parts of the west there isn't all that much of it. Written history in the west is like shallow soil overlaid on rock. You go down a little way and then there's nothing. We know that thousands of years of Native American history preceded Lewis and Clark, but we have an unclear idea of what it was. We must imagine it on the basis of information much scantier than the voluminous journals our famous explorers left behind. And so Lewis and Clark end up carrying a great amount of historical freight; we need a lot from them.
I titled my talk "There Went the Neighborhood: The American West Since Lewis and Clark" and I hope it's obvious that the title is somewhat tongue in cheek. I didn't know if I really thought that Lewis and Clark presaged doom and destruction for this neighborhood, the neighborhood being the American Northwest. The question was unresolved in my mind and it is unresolved in many people's minds. I figured that writing this talk would be a way to make clear to myself and maybe to others what the truth of this question is.
Before the symposium, I hadn't thought about the question of naming, to mention one legacy. The question of the naming of places, the geographic place names that Lewis and Clark bestowed all the way along their journey. This naming constituted, you could almost call a paving over of hundreds of Indian names. And the renaming meant that the former names were lost, forgotten, in many cases. When you realize that Lewis and Clark, when they reached a river in Montana that appeared kind of milky, they renamed it the Milk River. They knew when they renamed it the Milk River that its Indian name—because they'd heard this, I believe, from the Mandan—that its Indian name was The River That Laughs at All the Others, sometimes called The River That Scolds at All the Others. Well, the Milk River is perfectly serviceable prose. The River That Laughs at All the Others is poetry. And you can be glad, you can only be happy, that for the sake of Ernest Hemingway and world literature they didn't take a tour through northern Michigan and rename the Big Two-Hearted River. When you know how they reduced the poetry of an original name and you think what else was lost, and it's kind of sobering and a little frightening.
We know that the appearance of Lewis and Clark on the Upper Missouri and on the Columbia signaled some very bad news that was coming for Native people whom they met. And not bad news far off, but actually pretty quickly. As they came back, the party had divided and the party that Meriwether Lewis was leading on Cut Bank Creek, had a famous and sad encounter with Blackfeet Indians in which two Blackfeet were killed. And not long after they returned to the settlements, to what was then called the United States, some of the original members of the expedition went back up the river to Black Feet country and began to trap beaver. Now, they could've maybe thought that the Black Feet might be still a little upset about this incident that happened before. But, they went into that country, they trapped beaver, battles with the Blackfeet ensued, some of the trappers were killed. More trappers came up the river, more battles, more Blackfeet were killed. And the relation with that tribe was irredeemably ruined. And with the fur trappers, fur traders came. And these were American fur traders, not a monopoly like the Hudson's Bay Company. These were very competitive traders, competitive with each other. They used whisky ruthlessly. And because Indians didn't like to be vaccinated, they didn't vaccinate their customers. The Hudson's Bay Company did vaccinate. Anybody with any knowledge of past history in, not just the west but in North America and South America, you knew that the smallpox was a great killer of Native people. Yet the American fur traders did not vaccinate. Well, predictably the small pox which had been there in 1780 came back in 1837, just about three decades after Lewis and Clark and killed tens of thousands of Indians, including Indians who had met with Lewis and Clark, reducing populations of the Blackfeet particularly so that the Blackfeet population only recovered in the late 20th century to the level that it had been at before that smallpox epidemic. So there were proximate consequences that were really bad, not to mention later consequences that were also really regrettable.
Well, we've talked about these and other more or less concrete and tangible consequences of the expedition. I want to talk about a much more amorphous and metaphysical consequence, if you will. A legacy that exists entirely in the realm of the imagination, but that has momentous effect on the physical world. And what I'm referring to here is the myth of the American West. The myth that we can sort of imagine hovering around these explorers as they went out and that grew dramatically after they returned.
I'm not enough of a historian to trace the distant origins of this myth, but I can think of no frontier myth in American literature before Lewis and Clark went on their journey or before the journals of Lewis and Clark were published. I can think of no similar myth that preceded them. The journals were not fiction like the works of Fenimore Cooper, the Leatherstocking books, frontier adventures which were written in the decade after Lewis and Clark's journals were published. The journals were not romances or fantasies. And yet they were and are read with great romantic longing.
Historian James Ronda has called the journals "America's first great road story." I think that's really apt. And when you consider how important the road story is to America, and when you consider that properly speaking they were a river story, technically because they take place mostly on rivers, and arguably the greatest American book "Huckleberry Finn" is a river story, this is no small category to be first in. They came out in 1814, the first edition of the journals. And in publishing terms, they were a very big hit.
I read them in the New York Public Library. And the New York Public Library in its 19th century books consists largely of bequests, because people who had private libraries when they died they would bequeath their books. And that library has so many copies of the journals of Lewis and Clark, inc;uding copies that in other libraries would be in the rare book room. So when you put in a call slip, and they bring you the copy, you can specify which edition, you can say "I want the 1815 edition," well, you get the 1815 edition. And you sit and read these books, and I've seen a bunch of different editions from the 19th century and these books were read. You look at the book and you can just tell. It's got that kind of foxing on the pages; old, gray thumbprints; sometimes there are very faint pencil marks. These books were read.
And combined with the excitement of this new country that the Louisiana Purchase had added to America, then these journals must have been sort of like an advertisement or an accompaniment for this event, this acquisition of Louisiana. Combined with that, they created a real excitement that you can almost compare to a jolt of electricity, hitting the sort of vague and inert idea of the myth, and enlivening it and setting it on its feet and setting it walking as if it were a patient on a table that just got a jolt of electricity. And this myth has been walking around in our consciousness ever since.
And when I talk about it, I assume that people have a general idea of what the myth of West is. It is amorphous and specific at the same time. It involves a story of a man, or some men, and maybe a few women—one or two or three— pitted against a Western Wilderness. And that word 'pitted' is important. They always say 'pitted' against the West. Pitted isn't used very often except in that phrase 'pitted against the Western Wilderness.' And the Wilderness is one of intractable nature, or hostile men, or both, in a struggle through suffering to victory and glory and new life in a new land.
I'm giving a kind of broadbrush definition of it, a kind of simplified one. Its heroes were first intrepid woodsman types, like Cooper's Leatherstocking, Natty Bumpo, or for that matter, if you would think of them in this way, the original Lewis and Clark themselves. And later the myth crystallized around the cowboy. And that combination was so successful that the cowboy became our original, distinctly American archetype. It goes without saying that the heroes of the myth were white men, though many other people were involved, revolving around that center. And though the myth is or can be quite complex, its dialogue tends to be simple. The myth can be summed up, I've found, in four lines of dialogue. Those four lines are: "Yep." "Nope." "Thank you kindly, ma'am." and "I wouldn't do that if I was you, mister."
For some reason the West, like other arid places--the Holy Land comes to mind--has been a very healthy environment for imaginary beings. Maybe this is simply because the imagination has fewer obstacles in an open, arid place. Maybe it's something about the light. One time I was driving southeast Colorado and I got a radio station, the way those stations come in and out on Plains, and I got a station and it was playing the song 'Ghost Riders in the Sky,' Johnny Cash's version. The Sons of the Pioneers I think did it too, and maybe Marty Robbins. But this was Johnny Cash, and it's in this Johnny Cash voice. So this cowboy goes riding out one day and he looks up in the sky and he sees phantom horsemen just galloping across the sky and they're herding the devil's cattle. And the cattle, it says, "their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel." And the cowboy looks up and sees them thundering by, and one of the phantom cowboys turns to him and says if you want to avoid this fate, give up your life of sin or you're going to be herding the devil's cattle the way we have to do for all eternity across this endless sky.
And I was by myself, and I'm subject to exhilaration. And I swear I was like "Yeah, I see it! Ghost Riders in the Sky." And Johnny Cash. And it all combined and I was kind of stunned and I truly thought it was there. I've had this happen where you'll just see things, and you think "Do I see that?" Well, I know I'm imagining it, but it's still possible to imagine it.
One time I was at a conference in Lincoln, Nebraska, about manifest destiny. And they had a poster for the conference that used a print of a painting called something like "Westward the Course of the Empire" and in the painting is a depiction of manifest destiny as a beautiful blonde woman, about maybe 20 stories tall, walking, striding across the plains with her hair kind of behind her, barefoot, in a long flowing white dress. And she's striding like this. And behind her are the pioneers, wagon trains, farm equipment, stock. You know, people are coming along, but the people are normal-sized, and she is leading them. And there was another participant at this and his name was Charles Trimble, and I think he's Oglala; he's Lakota anyway. He has had a bunch of distinguished positions. At that time he was president of the Nebraska Historical Society. And he said, "Isn't that weird? Manifest destiny as a beautiful woman! I just can't imagine; that's just so mind-blowing!" He said it reminded him of the White Buffalo Woman, who was an important figure in a Lakota myth of origin. The White Buffalo Woman who sees Lakota boys hunting and she comes down and gives them, essentially, their culture. She gives them weapons and the buffalo, and she's wearing white buckskins, and it was a moment of origin for the Sioux. And Chuck Trimble said, "You know, the White Buffalo woman gave us everything, and this woman, the Manifest Destiny Woman, took it all away." And I find that when I'm out there, I can imagine both of them, the White Buffalo Woman elusive and just maybe seen out of the corner of your eye; and the Manifest Destiny Woman just right out there, stepping over power lines. And we can be sure that in this place so conducive to visions, that other imaginary imagined beings have taken shape.
We know that eyes, thousands of years ago and for a long time, have conjured beings out of this very evocative place. We see pictographs, or ancient Indian paintings on rock, and we know that there were spiritual beings out here, specific ones associated with places no doubt, the places whose names we don't know anymore. And we don't know who the spiritual beings were, either. We sort of have an idea, but we don't have a clear grasp of it. And I think a very important part of being American, where we have a shallow history that doesn't go back all that far, is to know that there's a big history that we don't know really. That we don't have any specific way of knowing really; we can kind of sense but not know; and in that not knowing you have to acknowledge that it's there and never forget that it's there and respect that it's there. The imaginary being that I can conjure when I think about it is the myth of the West. I think of it like a dust devil out there sort of just zipping around, spinning around, bouncing like a top, throwing off sparks; coming into focus and going out again but always there. I see it as really powerful; something like electric power.
To illustrate its power, I'm going to digress just for a minute and talk about George W. Bush, our president. George W. Bush is a Texan. We know him as a Texan; the world knows him as a "Western" American, not just as an American. When they want to speak disparagingly of him -- and of Americans as well -- they call him a cowboy. And he has cowboy attributes. He wears a cowboy hat and cowboy boots, he owns a ranch, he clears brush, and his dialogue is pretty close to, "I wouldn't do that if I was you, mister." The Bushes themselves -- his parents and his grandparents and farther into his ancestors -- are East coast people. George W. was born in New Haven, Connecticut and moved to Texas when he was two. The Bushes -- Barbara and former President Bush -- relocated to Texas when their son was two and George (W.) grew up there. But the family goes practically all the way back to the Mayflower. FDR is a cousin of the Bushes. They are -- at least they were -- largely an East coast family. And if you imagine this president as a political figure not in Texas but in Connecticut, say, a moderately successful businessman living in New Haven where he was born or on one of the commuter lines down into New York City, he's just a different person. For the family to have moved west -- they had been involved in politics for a long time -- has to be one of the most successful product re-positionings, if you will, in American political history. And it calls to mind Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy Roosevelt was a New York City rich kid, not in very robust health, he was asthmatic, he wore glasses; he was very depressed after the death of his wife when he was quite young, and he went to the Dakotas; he became a rancher, he became a cowboy, he knocked down a bad guy in a bar and knocked him cold -- a guy who was threatening people and shooting up the bar. And Teddy Roosevelt emerged as a cowboy. He was a cowboy president; led the charge up San Juan Hill and is thought of as a cowboy. Well, in both these cases, the myth that they took on or that adhered to them as a result of their time in the West, I think made them much more accessible to people and much more sympathetic. We know what the myth is. They guy is wearing a cowboy hat; we understand. There's something that, to me, says how much power resides in this myth; how much power it can confer if you understand it -- or even if you don't.
I'm a writer who has written books about the West, as Clay said, and, in a sense, I've made a living off this myth -- or some living off this myth. I've seen how real an imaginary thing can be. I've seen the myth wax and wane. It's like a water resource or a wildlife population. Again and again the myth grabs the nation's attention. And again and again it sort of recedes and steps back. I've mentioned how with the Louisiana Purchase you suddenly had this interest in the West and an idea of Western adventure that could cause Huckleberry Finn to plausibly say, "I'm going to light out for the territory." He couldn't have said that before the Louisiana Purchase… I think it would at least have been a little more far-fetched. The myth tends to disappear during times of prolonged war and it was not as prominent during the Civil War. After the Civil War it came back, into its classic period, where it really came into its own. Cowboys who were real cowboys driving actual cattle to railheads that had recently reached the Plains in some cases went on to become show cowboys within a matter of just years. They became if you will, "Mythic Cowboys." They joined the Wild West show. There were lots of cowboys who did that; there were lots of Wild West shows. And these Wild West shows traveled [to] all big cities in America. They were kind of like a combination of a circus and a rodeo. They had stagecoach holdups and real Indians. They had cattle and gun fights. They were really exciting according to people who saw them and they had such popularity that they leaped the Atlantic and became very popular in Europe. They went to the major cities of Europe in the second half of the 19th century and even into the 20th century. This was a way that Europeans then thought of Americans. This is why the cowboy is still a word on the tip of their tongue when they want to describe Americans. During this time you had dime novels, you had paintings of the West -- paintings that were premiered like movie premiers. You would pay your quarter, stand in line and someone would lift a veil and there would be an Albert Bierstadt painting of, say, the Wind River Mountains. This was the classic, formative time for the myth. When the difficulties of the 20th century came along the myth didn't disappear completely but -- especially during the Depression and the Second World War -- people just had other things on their mind. I am of the "baby boom" generation which was born after World War II. When people my age were kids, we grew up in a Western-themed childhood. We had "Western" everything: cowboy lunch boxes, cowboy and Indian birthday parties, Cisco Kid pajamas. I remember in the playground you had to know who your favorite cowboy was and you had three choices: Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, or Hopalong Cassidy. And that was a decision that you had to make. There were forty-some Western series on TV. Gunsmoke was the longest running TV show of all time -- I think it was later superceded by Mary Tyler Moore.
My favorite show was Sugarfoot. It was sort of based on "The Man who Shot Liberty Valance;" he was a lawyer like the Jimmy Stewart character in "Liberty Valance." "Easy loping, cattle roping, Sugarfoot." He didn't ever do much of anything as I recall; he was just a nice guy. I also liked the Rifleman because Chuck Connors, the Rifleman, had a boy sidekick about twelve years old (who I wanted to be). And I thought the Rifleman's rifle was really cool. I owned the Mattel toy version of it. I believe I owned every Western toy firearm Mattel made: the Fanner 50 revolver, the Rolling Block buffalo hunter rifle and I don't know if anybody remembers this but, it was a little Derringer hidden in a belt buckle. It was supposed to look like part of the belt buckle and it did -- like part of the design -- this silvery belt buckle. And I think it was based on the show Yancy Derringer or maybe Bat Masterson but anyway I loved this thing, it was really cool. You would fold it with a spring back into the buckle and it shot a "Shootin' Shell" bullet … that was spring loaded and you put a cap on the cartridge. So I had the thing loaded and, then, if you were in a tight spot, you would just press against the back with your stomach and on an armature the Derringer would spring out and shoot. The problem was that this spring got a little loose over time and it didn't take that much pressure to make it "pow" and shoot out. I think the toy was designed by a psychiatrist in order to provide himself with people to psychoanalyze many years later.
Like childhood, this period ended. And it may be why I feel so much romance and affection for the romance of the West because it was my childhood. This flowering of the myth in this post-World War II era was my childhood so I think of it in conjunction with that. But the myth again submerged; you had another prolonged war, Viet Nam, and Viet Nam was more complicated than the sort of black and white vision of the West could [muffled] comprehend. If you've ever seen John Wayne in the movie "Green Berets" he looks good in the uniform but he doesn't know what he's doing. It's really a frightening thing; he's just kind of walking through this role. Viet Nam was too much for the Duke.
….and pretty much everything disappeared in those years under "sex and drugs and Rock 'n' Roll" so it wasn't surprising that this would happen. And the west stayed pretty much submerged -- actually it went through a real kind of "dark side of the moon" time through the 1970s and most of the 1980s. When I began to work on my book "Great Plains" I drove 30,000 -- 40,000 miles on the plains up and down, Canada to Texas and all kinds of side routes. When I was out there I felt not only was I in an abandoned place -- if you've been out there you know you can go to these small towns one year and you come back the next year and the store where you bought your blue jeans is all boarded up and it's empty and gone and you go to the café and it's all four or five really old ranchers sitting there and the town has tumble weeds going down the main street. Well, I had a feeling that it wasn't just an abandoned place but an abandoned myth. Or a myth sort of left out in the backyard and nobody paying any attention to it.
I went to Dodge City -- having enjoyed Gunsmoke I wanted to go see Dodge City -- there were remarkably few tourists. A lot of the things like the saloon -- Miss Kitty's Saloon, I thought it would be… and there was nothing going on. There wasn't even a Miss Kitty. I went to something that I'd been told was great: The Dodge City Frontier Gunfighter Museum. It was remarkable; it was wax figures of John Wesley Hardin and Doc Holliday and people like that. But it had recently reduced itself in size and it had given the other half of the building to the Kansas State Teachers Hall of Fame. Well, there was no more -- you know there were about eight wax figures of gunfighters and then a music teacher who had been Doc Severinsen's music teacher and it was quite a worthy museum and I actually enjoyed it. I liked the Teachers Hall of Fame and I listed everybody that was in the Teachers Hall of Fame. I went through and -- I love lists as you can tell maybe from that excerpt that Clay read. So I listed all these teachers in my book, and a couple years later when I was signing books in Wichita this woman came in and said to me -- this pretty old woman -- and she said, "I'm on page 193 in your book." And I said, "Well I hope you get a chance to finish it." And she said, "No, no. I'm Mrs. So-and-so. I was one of the science teachers in the Hall of Fame." And I'm -- "my gosh."
Well, I knew the West would come back. It had before; it just made sense that it would. It always reemerges as strong as or stronger than before. And I was right; it did come back. Great Plains was published in 1989; it became a best seller. The next year the movie "Dances with Wolves" came out and it was the first Western movie to win a lot of Oscars. It took a revisionist view of the former enemies, the Sioux. If you've seen a movie in which the Sioux are the enemy, it was a completely different take on that and of course and of course a white guy, Kevin Costner was again the hero but that movie did very well critically; won I think nine Academy Awards.
The next or two years later "Unforgiven" was a big hit and also won some Academy Awards. And at that point I realized that you can predict this is just going to keep coming back. However if somebody had said to me, "Yes, there will be another moment where the myth of the West -- a Western movie -- really grabs popular attention in a decade or more," I would have said, "Certainly." If someone had said that the movie that grabs attention will be a movie about gay cowboys … I think everybody in America -- everybody would have been amazed because… who could have predicted? But this is what happened with "Brokeback Mountain," and the movie satisfies the myth's requirements. It's about a struggle with a wilderness -- in this case it's an internal wilderness of repression and conventionality -- but it's got scenery; it's got mountains, horses, dust, and a white guy as the hero. …or in this case, two white guys. It has proved that this is a really adaptable myth. It found a new social environment and adapted to it. And as I've had this experience I've realized this is one tough myth. It has proved adaptable and resilient and resourceful -- coming back when it was thought to have been thoroughly debunked. It has surprised historians who have studied it and know it well. The other day I was reading a review in the New York Review of Books by a wonderful writer from Texas, Larry McMurtry, and he was reviewing a book that's just come out by an historian from Oklahoma about the Texas Rangers and this book says that the Texas Rangers, in their merciless treatment of Mexicans and Indians, were like the death squads in the former Yugoslavia. McMurty considers this and grants that there's some justice to the author's claim from what he knows of the Texas Rangers but he adds that the author says that his goal is to de-mythologize Texas. And McMurtry [with] longer experience than I have in this says he can only wish the author luck. He says, "At this late date, de-mythologizing Texas is beyond anyone's power." And that is true. I thought with "Great Plains" that I was debunking a myth; instead of putting George Custer -- a white, accepted hero of the Plains -- at the center of the book, I put his antagonist and the man who defeated him at the Little Big Horn, Crazy Horse, at the center. And I loved Crazy Horse and I still love Crazy Horse. I have affection for Custer but I love Crazy Horse.
Custer, to me, is a teenager. He's a boisterous boy; he is not a grown-up. But he's a pretty lively boy and you watch him and -- my gosh -- the things he does… But Crazy Horse is a man and he's a great man and he maintains himself and his selfhood and his people's selfhood in the face of such astonishing bad circumstances. It's really, to me, a noble story which also had not had much attention [paid] to it. I mean, Crazy Horse named his daughter "They are Afraid of Her." And what a great name for a kid! You know, if you want your kid not to have any problem in school -- "They are Afraid of Her." And they say, "why are they afraid of her?" Because Crazy Horse is her father! It's the protection of the father on the child. There are thousands of reasons to love Crazy Horse.
I came to understand that the myth of the West "likes" to be debunked. It just absorbs debunking and comes back stronger than before. It subsumes the debunking and continues on its mythological way. So, I think we have to concede -- and this is something that Patty Limerick said today -- that the myth of the West is something we are stuck with and might as well get used to. It inhabits this place -- our dreams or our nightmares -- and we might regard it as another entity; a part of the environment that we have to take into account like the Ogallala Aquifer or the tourist industry. I used to think of the myth as something that I was in -- that was around me -- now I see it as something out there; a part of me. It is beautiful because it's beloved -- anything loved is beautiful -- but it's a clumsy companion; it's not always real helpful. It's compelling but obtuse; it leaves out so many people. And one of the wonderful things that this four years has done -- commemorating Lewis and Clark -- is to see all the things that are left out, all the people who were on the margins, moved to the center. Today we heard -- really interestingly -- about how Sacagawea was "nobody" in the nineteenth century; nobody even gave her a thought and that with the rise of the woman's suffrage movement, suddenly Sacagawea steps into the limelight. Would we be as interested in Lewis and Clark today if it weren't for this interesting, very competent, capable woman -- or girl, really -- who came with them?
I live in New Jersey and where I live is the most densely populated area of America. When I get fed up with that I have a CD of theme songs from Western movies that I've liked. I really like to listen to it. It's all these songs like the theme from "The Rifleman," for example. The first song on it is the theme from the movie, "Rio Bravo," and the people who sing it are Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson. The song is [called], "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." And when I'm feeling real claustrophobic it's just -- "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." It's about a cowboy riding out onto the prairie, you know, open country in front of him. Just his rifle, his pony and him out there. I like to think about it. It's right down the "main street" of this myth; right down the middle of the myth. The song celebrates independence, solitude, mobility -- and the threat of violence. It's something that is comfortable to surround ones self with but in the ever more crowded and resource-challenged West of today, we're not going to solve our problems -- "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." It's just not realistic to think you're going to restore decent salmon runs to the Pacific Northwest -- "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." You're not going to reform the general mining law of 1872 -- "My Rifle, My Pony and Me." You're not going to figure out the problem that we're going to have more and more of allocation of water resources -- "My Rifle, My Pony and Me."
So, to go back to my title "There Went the Neighborhood" and to the question it implies, and basically the question asks, "Was the Lewis and Clark Expedition a good thing or a bad thing?" In light of the changes it portended, the consequences for native peoples, and considering this clumsy, beloved, powerful myth which the journals helped to create, was the expedition good or bad? I really thought a lot about it over this time that I've been thinking about my talk and then over these days of the symposium, I really thought: "What do I really think?" And I keep in mind the bad things that happened and I really wanted to say, you know, I don't just want to … be ambiguous. If I really had to pick, what would I say? I think in balance, it was good.
It required amazing bravery and persistence, forbearance, skill. It was accomplished almost flawlessly. Elliot West told us about the Mungo Park Expedition on the Niger River which exactly coincided in time with Lewis and Clark, and the Mungo Park Expedition was a disaster. It didn't accomplish its goals and every single person on it died. That may not be a disaster from an African's point of view but if you think about what you're trying to do in an expedition, that's not it. The Bering Expedition -- when Russia tried to figure out whether a Asia and North America are connected. In 1725 they sent Vitus Bering off; he made one trip -- inconclusive reply. They sent him out again and he finally gets to Alaska but then he doesn't sail far enough north to figure out what's going on, all the men are complaining about him, he gets incredibly grumpy and bizarre, he lands in Alaska after ten years of preparation, and after ten hours he says, "well, it's time to go." And they leave! And George Steller, the naturalist with the expedition, said, "Ten years in preparation and ten hours in Alaska." So you can see these things can fail really badly and this didn't. The Lewis and Clark expedition was a great heroic achievement by people -- not all of whom where white males. I think about Lewis and Clark and I admire them even though -- I know… but I admire them. I was just reading in the journals about a flash flood that Clark, Sacagawea, Sacagawea's baby who was I think about six months old, and Clark's slave, York, were caught in. There's been this thunderstorm and all this water is rushing down and they're in this ravine where they thought they would take shelter from the thunderstorm, they're under an overhanging rock and suddenly the water is just rising all around them and they're about to drown. And they pop out and Clark pushes Sacagawea up the embankment and Charbonneau, her husband is also there and he's paralyzed with fear as his usual position in these things… And they manage to get him out and they all get away and they're up there, you know, glad to be out and then Clark, in his methodical way, catalogs what they lost. They lost a lot of stuff that just got washed away because they didn't have time to take it with them -- the water came down so fast. And he notes that they lost the compass which he says is irreplaceable. And then he says of Sacagawea, "her child lost his bear." That's not a real bear, that's his toy bear. And Clark in the middle of this expedition with global consequences stops and notes that the compass is lost which is a serious loss and, the baby lost his bear. And at that moment you know that Clark is a really flawed person. We learned about Clark's flaws, but if you're a parent, you know that the loss of your kid's favorite toy -- his favorite bear -- is no small matter. And it makes you not just like Clark but you can imagine Pompey, the baby [crying] -- he's not talking, he's only six months -- but he clearly upset and so is Sacagawea, and Clark notes it. And when I read that I just… you know, love is complicated, this is not a good man in many ways. He beat York -- we heard about that today -- it just wrenched my heart, you know, York is being sullen and what does Clark do? He beats him. And this is in 1809 after the expedition. But you love him the way you love people that -- they're not always what you want -- but you can't do anything about what you love. But when you look at it from the point of view of someone looking back at the expedition coming from the point of view of a Mandan or a Blackfeet Indian, and you see these guys coming and you intuit what's going to happen, what can your response be except, "Oh, no!" What can your response be except to wish that these wonderful, intrepid, brave, great people had stayed where they were and not assumed that this apparently empty place was theirs to take.
When I state my opinion of the expedition -- that I think it was good -- I know that a completely opposite opinion exists and that there are many others at various points on the compass. This question is unlikely to be decided with any finality any time soon, so we can all sit comfortably in the positions we've taken and nothing has to change. Our public discourse today offers many such questions, unresolved and un-resolvable questions, intractable positions that we can take on it. The stronger we are in our opinions and the madder we get at those who disagree with us and the more we berate them and revile them, the more comfortable we feel, and kind of satisfied. It's a very, kind of warm feeling. It's like listening to some talk radio show that you totally disagree with and you just sit there and -- oh, man. America has always been a struggle between union and division. With its abundance of land and resources and its multiplicity of inhabitants, it offered great opportunity for division. Indians divided into nations and tribes and bands and family groups within the bands. Protestant religious sects -- there's so many of them when you get back to American history trying to sort out the Baptists -- there are millions of different kinds. Five kinds of Quakers. Local political arrangements and, of course, the big division; the division that has formed our history was the division over slavery. And it led to the civil war; our biggest war in which the most Americans died -- more than in any other war. And that war tried the question: to separate or unite? And it decided it in favor of union. And union was a really successful concept -- you go to all these places: Union Station in Chicago… As a unified country we prospered and we had a period in which this major, serious division had been resolved and we kind of breathed a sigh of relief as a nation inclined to division because it seemed the question had been solved.
We live today in a period of division. This is the Golden Age of division. As of October in just a few weeks, the population of the United States will be 300 million people. In 40 years we'll be 400 million people. We are now the third most populous country on earth after China and India. And it's hard to imagine ones self as just one of 300 million anything. It's hard to imagine ones self as one three-hundred-millionth of America. So, naturally we divide and subdivide endlessly and define ourselves in narrower and narrower terms. A guy will tell you, "I'm not only someone who rides motorcycles, I ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles and I would never ride any of those other junky motorcycles." You'll see a bumper sticker [saying] that someone's a cat person. A woman I hadn't seen for many years who I'd known in my childhood and in that time since I'd seen her last had become a chef and she knew a lot about wine. I hadn't seen her in years and she came up to me and said, "I'm about food." You order a book on your computer and the company you buy it from will tell you what other books you want; it will tell you where you are on that spectrum. There is money to be made by defining us evermore exactly. I don't drink Coke, I drink decaf Diet Coke with Lime. I'm not the first to point out how ghetto-ized and polarized we are politically. It seems to me that now the lazy and easy decision is to go deeper into the infinity of tiny niches that the market is happy to provide for us; to go along with this sort of inertia of our time, rather than to think about what we share. It seems simple but it's not something… we think about who specifically we are… we don't think about what we share. One of the side effects or unexpected results, I think of September 11th was that, for a moment we thought, "Well, we're Us." And I remember… I was actually in Russia on September 11th and I came back to New York and the New York I had left was a contentious place: problems with race, some horrible story in the news about police beating up or killing a black person on the street and what had happed…, and all of these divisions… divisions over real estate… all kinds of contention. And to come back to a New York where people are really looking at each other and being forbearing with each other and being kind, it was really different and it was wonderful. It has diminished some but I feel it's still there in New York; more than it ever was before September 11th.
In the Lewis and Clark Expedition and its story, what do we share? Well, we share an argument. People see it in a lot of different ways. But that's not bad. Some countries have histories that are so terrible that they don't even want to think about it and, no matter what side they happen to be on, they just prefer to not think about, you know, the Stalin purges -- that was just not something we want to bring up again. We can bring this up, we can talk. 41 tribes sent representatives to this commemoration over the four years. And we also share, unavoidably, an unresolvable paradox. The expedition was a heroic achievement and some -- but by no means all -- of its consequences were dreadful. Thinking about both these concepts simultaneously taxes the mind, but there it is. As the great American poet, Walt Whitman said, "Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself." Today the braver and harder choice, it seems to me, is to leave the niche that we're in and its comforts, its certainties, and step out into the real unknown: the wildly diverse nation of 300 million and the real, non-mythical problems right in front of us that we share.
[TRANSCRIPT: Ian Frazier: There Went the Neighborhood: The American West Since Lewis and Clark; Delivered: September 30, 2006, Newmark Theatre, Portland, Oregon for Lewis & Clark College
Transcribed by: Tania Thompson, Allen Thompson
Back to Winter 2007 Chronicle