Each year classrooms across the U.S. study, re-enact, and celebrate the Lewis and Clark expedition, a journey that has become an emblematic symbol of American fortitude and courage. While there are many aspects of the “Corps of Discovery” worthy of commemoration—the triumph over geographical obstacles, the appreciation and cataloging of nature, and the epic proportions of the journey—this is only part of the history.
While Lewis and Clark regarded the West as territory “on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden,” this land had been home for centuries to millions of Native Americans from over 170 nations. For the descendants of these people, celebrations of the Corps of Discovery mark the onset of an era of brutal repression, genocide and the destruction of their culture.
The lesson plans in curriculum unit take an in-depth look at the history of U.S. expansion and Indian policy, and present the voices and perspectives of Native Americans on the Lewis and Clark expedition. These materials offer an alternative viewpoint on an often-glorified era, and call attention to the dangers of ethnocentric and one-sided versions of history.
In South Dakota, a group re-enacting the Lewis and Clark expedition was confronted by American Indian leaders who questioned the legacy of the journey and its effects. “All [they] did by coming up into our territory is open old wounds,” commented a Lakota member of the delegation. “You are re-enacting the coming of death to our people.”
As educators plan historical commemorations into their curriculum each year, it is critical that they incorporate lessons that encourage curricula that encourage multiple perspectives and values, reduce cultural encapsulation and highlight the experiences of those who have been traditionally marginalized in history. This unit offers a prime opportunity to model such an approach.