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National Commemoration Events and Tribal Involvement

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Conflict Resolution Institute

A Lecture By Chris Howell

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On September 21st, the Conflict Resolution Institute hosted Chris Howell for a talk on "National Commemoration Events and Tribal Involvement: The Lewis and Clark Bicentennial." Mr. Howell is Director of Tribal Relations at BNSF Railway, where he helps strengthen BNSF relationships with Native American tribes. He is also a trained mediator. Mr. Howell served as the official representative of the Pawnee Nation to the Circle of Tribal Advisors of the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial from 2003 to 2007.

Mr. Howell described the process of involving tribal communities during the planning and implementation for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Commemorations. The National Park Service hosted "Listening Sessions" to solicit tribal concerns and opinions. The tribal elders addressed their viewpoints on western discovery, such as that America was not a land that anyone 'discovered.' While most Americans glorified the Lewis and Clark expedition, most Americans are less aware of the atrocities that took place during Western expansion: loss of land, genocide, loss of culture, and extreme levels of oppression that some Native Americans still feel today. Discussions included distinguishing commemoration versus celebration; many tribes decided they were not going to celebrate but rather commemorate. Thus, the Circle of Tribal Advisors was created.

The Circle of Tribal Advisors went to meet directly with tribal communities and held large town hall meetings along the Lewis and Clark trail. Everyone wanted their voices to be heard. The participants included federally-recognized tribes, state-recognized tribes, non-recognized tribes, and other community members. A common theme emerged that tribal historical perspectives and American historical perspectives clashed, and yet the dominant narrative of the American historical perspective was what was taught in schools. Many non-tribal participants felt uncomfortable with the tribal perspective, yet were content with school teachings.

Conflict manifested at all levels of participation: federal, tribal, state, local, and community. State and local communities were not prepared to consult with tribes. One factor remained constant: everyone wanted to share their story, creating areas of conversation. Many communities wanted to claim Sacagawea, the Lemhi Shoshone woman who aided Lewis and Clark, as a hero -- as opposed to exalting Lewis and Clark. Communities needed help connecting with the tribal nations whose ancestral homelands they now occupy.

Correcting misconceptions recorded by Lewis and Clark was an enormous challenge – Mr. Howell argued how misconceptions are alive and well today, but go unrecognized. For instance, museums have possessions of artifacts they should not own. The need for an open, safe space for tribal leaders' participation became even more pressing. The Open Space process used by the Circle of Tribal Advisors was a useful way of facilitating uncensored communication in large public meetings. It exists on the basis of the "law of two feet:" "Take responsibility for what you care about by using your own two feet to move to whatever place you can best contribute or learn." This notion brought forth inherent creativity and leadership in people. The process is supported by four principles: (1) Whoever comes are the right people; (2) Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened; (3) When it starts it is the right time; (4) When it is over, it is over. These four principles fit the tribal groups very well. After the facilitator explained the theme and process, participants created their discussion topics and participated in decisions according to the law of two feet and the principles. The facilitators were tribal people; this is very rare and is what made the process a success. This offered tribal people a voice on many platforms: national, state, local.

These Open Space processes were successful, in part because there were no preconceived notions of what the outcomes should be. The process set out to accommodate groups from five to 500 people and ran from two hours to three days. There were over 400 attendees at many Open Space meeting, providing ample time for voices to be heard. The series of collaborative discussions ended with the creation of a handbook for greater understanding and for distribution to communities hosting commemorations. The handbook was used by many states on The Lewis and Clark Trail. The history in this handbook is taken directly from the opinions and perspectives of tribes, without censorship. This stands as the first step towards healing and managing dialogue on a national scale. A website archive and the handbook, Enough Good People: Reflections on Tribal Involvement and Intercultural Collaboration 2003-2006 can be found at