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Reflections on Lewis & Clark:
Through Indian Eyes

by Dean Baker, Columbian staff writer
The Columbian, December 29, 2003

SCAPPOOSE, Ore. -- When Pat Courtney Gold was a child on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Central Oregon, teachers at the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school chopped off her long, sleek black hair and squared it off roughly front and back.

They made her wear a drab uniform several sizes too big and spanked her with a fly swatter.

"I didn't know what I had done wrong," she said. "I was 4 years old. The haircut was humiliating. I was scared all the time."

What was "wrong," she learned, was that she was an American Indian and it was the 1940s. For Gold and other members of her Wasco tribe, the coming bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's expedition is no cause for rejoicing. It symbolizes the end of their forebears' way of life.

But Gold sees the bicentennial as an opportunity, nevertheless. She is using it as a springboard to study the Wasco heritage, to learn the art of her ancestors and to travel across the country telling what she has learned of the Wascos and their relations with Lewis and Clark.

Her ancestors had lived along the Columbia River for 10,000 years when the rag-tag explorers paddled up in 1805. The Wascos thought the white guys were comical and awkward in their dirty, tattered leather clothes, navigating in crude boats made from hollowed logs.

So say the stories that Gold has gleaned from tribal elders and also inferred herself from closely reading the expedition journals all written by men and imagining her reactions, she puts it, "as a woman, and as a Wasco myself."

She has come to identify so closely with her ancestors that she speaks of them as "we."

"We weren't so impressed by Lewis and Clark," Gold says, sitting in a rocking chair in her home 120 miles downstream from modern Lone Pine at The Dalles, where her ancestors lived 200 years ago.

Fifty years have passed since her boarding school haircut, and Gold has made up for childhood abuse by reclaiming her American Indian heritage.

Her Wasco ancestors formed one of three tribes that combined to make today's Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs. The others are the Warm Springs and the Paiute.

A leader emerges

After a dozen years of study, Gold has emerged as an artistic and philosophical leader of her tribe.

She makes baskets in the manner of her ancestors. The intricate weavings are in demand at art museums and universities across the country.

The epiphany of her artistic journey came in 1999, she says, when she traveled 3,000 miles from her home on the Columbia River to Harvard University's Peabody Museum.

She traveled all that distance just to cradle in her arms a 200-year-old basket from the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1805. She spent an entire day in the Peabody archives admiring the basket, turning it over in her hands as two curators quizzed her on how it was made.

Her ancestors traded the basket to the famous explorers, or to other Indians who then traded the basket to the explorers. Her passion for the basket had little to do with the fact that Lewis or Clark owned the basket and brought it back East in 1806.

Her interest was in the makers of the art.

"It was a spiritual experience," said Gold. "The basket was made by my ancestors seven generations ago."

Although she has since become an expert on the travels of Lewis and Clark, the Corps of Discovery isn't Gold's main interest.

Her focus is the diverse civilization that already populated the banks of the Columbia when the explorers arrived.

"Lewis and Clark's arrival was kind of a nonevent," she said, calling again on stories she has heard and on her empathetic relationship with her ancestors. "They weren't aware of how quickly we sent messages up and down the river. We knew they were coming. And it wasn't a big thing not like a lightning storm or a big flood."

She said the Wasco, Nez Perce, Chinook, Umatilla, Yakama, Klickitat and other residents of the river were savvy to trade, and looked at these new men as possible trading partners.

"We saw them as a way to expand our trade routes, which were well established, after we'd lived here for 10,000 years," she said.

Gold's forebears, who lived along the river between modern Vancouver and Celilo Falls east of The Dalles, may have handed the basket directly to Lewis or Clark.

Or perhaps, she says, her ancestors may have traded the basket filled with goods such as berries to other Indians.

The basket at the Peabody is like many that were traded in the early 1800s at Nixluidix, a Wasco-Wishram town at Celilo Falls.

Baskets, made to standard sizes, roughly equal to pint, quart, gallon, and two-gallon volumes, were used to collect, store, and trade food items. In them were goods such as wapato tubers, camas bulbs, pemmican, berries, and bitterroots, even dried foods and gifts for festivals and potlatches or give-away ceremonies.

Regardless of how the explorers got the basket, Gold says, the explorers clearly were ignorant of Indian ways, and appeared to be slow to learn.

Explorers made mistakes

They weren't aware, for example, that river tribes were matriarchal. Women made many important Wasco decisions, but the explorers spoke only to men.

At one point, she says, the explorers traded for a horse. The next day, after the Indian man went home and told his wife he'd made the trade, he came back and took his horse back. The wife had vetoed the trade.

"Lewis and Clark didn't know who was in charge," Gold says.

"I look at the journals not to see so much what Lewis and Clark saw, but to view it through my eyes, as a Wasco and a woman," she says.

Gold, who for 11 years was a mathematician for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, turned to the art of basketry gradually in the 1990s. She declined to say how old she is, but allowed she's about 60.

She did it as one of three Wasco women working to relearn a portion of native culture stripped from them when they were children in the 1940s on the reservation.

Gold, her sister Bernyce Courtney and their friend Arlene Bolieu all Wascos studied basketry with Mary Schlick, a non-Indian woman, who had learned the basket art traveling to various reservations with her husband, an employee of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"We learned the techniques," said Gold. "Then we expanded on them."

Her baskets sell for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. Known now for her twined Wasco basketry, she uses cattail leaves, tule, dogbane fiber, cedar bark and tree roots for her traditional baskets. For her contemporary baskets, chenille, dyed wool, and other textured materials.

Her designs include the images of seven dogs and a star, which tell a traditional Wasco legend of the four Wolf brothers, a pet dog, and Coyote the comical and sly American Indian "Trickster" character traveling to the sky to view the stars.

The old ideas remain rich, she says. She uses ancient motifs such as salmon, sturgeon, condor, mountains and water, even sturgeon roe, fawn spots and salmon gills.

She makes modern designs, too. These designs are lively, colorful, and abstract, but in motifs similar to ancient patterns. One design, for example, is a modern yuppie couple. Many of her artworks can be seen by entering her name and viewing a variety of sites on the Internet.

"I enjoy experimenting with new fibers and trying variations on old designs," she explains. "I'm sure if my ancestor basket weavers were transplanted into this century, they would be inspired to do the same."

Traditional designs are handed down from family to family and sometimes from tribal nation to weavers.

"Native elders are living museums," she says. "They pass on the weaving traditions, techniques, and designs."

Gold carefully studies the old ways, using geometric images and motifs. She's in demand from the University of Miami to the University of Colorado to Harvard, adding to her esteem as a founding member of the Northwest Native American Basketweaver Association, where she is known as a "Siam" or honored weaver.

She not only teaches weaving, she says, but tries to help her students understand the importance of stewardship on the land.

Dean Baker writes about history. Reach him at 360-759-8009 or e-mail

About the Wascos

Lewis and Clark met the Wascos on the Columbia River, near the mouth of the Deschutes River, on Oct. 22, 1805.

The explorers noted Wasco economic viability, their many houses, horses, river expertise and huge quantities of dried salmon, as well as their large population at the great Celilo Falls. They smoked with the Wasco, bought dog meat from them, remarked on their trading ability and the clothing they wore, including scarlet and blue blankets and sailor's jackets they'd obviously obtained in trade with Europeans.

The explorers feared they would be attacked by the Wascos, but instead the Indians guided the explorers and offered horses to help the explorers portage past the great Celilo Falls.

Who are the Wascos?

Dean Baker, Columbian staff writer
Reflections on Lewis & Clark: Through Indian Eyes
The Columbian, December 29, 2003

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