During their journey, Lewis & Clark recorded information about 114 tribal nations whose lands they crossed during their epic exploration of 1803-1806. Today those nations are represented by 65 modern tribal governments – who initially had no interest in the expedition’s bicentennial fanfare. American Indians could not and would not celebrate the event that opened their homelands to Westward expansion, loss of lands and cultures, oppression and genocide.

In 2000, the National Park Service appointed a respected Native leader, Gerard Baker, to serve as Superintendent of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail and the new bicentennial traveling exhibit, Corps of Discovery II: 200 Years to the Future. Baker urged tribes to participate in the bicentennial and tell their own stories about Lewis & Clark and their lives since the expedition – or risk having non-Indians tell their stories for them.

A small group of individuals from nine of the 65 modern tribal nations met to discuss whether or not they ought to participate in the bicentennial or boycott it. They decided to participate. They also created the Circle of Tribal Advisors (COTA) to advise the National Council of the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, the Congressionally authorized grassroots coordinating body for the commemoration, about inclusion of tribal perspectives. A year later, the National Council unanimously voted to make tribal involvement its number one priority. Within months, 40 of the 65 nations – or approximately 2/3 of the tribes recorded by Lewis and Clark – had become active members of COTA.

COTA promoted educational programs, created a national cultural awareness campaign (including the four PSAs you will find in this archive), made grants to tribes for bicentennial related projects, ensured an extraordinary level of tribal participation in all bicentennial events and activities, and created a $1.6 million Native Voices Language Endowment to make grants for tribal language programs and scholars. COTA’s final contribution was Enough Good People, Reflections on Tribal Involvement and Inter-Cultural Collaboration 2003-2006, published in 2009 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and included here in its entirety.

COTA was an historic coalition that viewed the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial as an opportunity to preserve and celebrate what tribes have left of their lands, cultures and languages; present tribal perspectives about the expedition and its aftermath; honor their ancestors’ legacies; enhance their children’s future; teach the public about American Indians today; and collaborate with non-Indian neighbors to realize mutual goals and benefits. COTA helped elevate cross-cultural dialogue to impart a more nuanced and complete telling of our shared American history.

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