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A different way of looking at Lewis and Clark

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Imagine helping to plan a Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration and thinking it might be good to do something other than make a statue of the intrepid captains pointing westward.

Jane Jacobsen got that chance; and by the time the brainstorming was over, a $20 million art project to tell both sides of the Lewis and Clark encounter – and its effects on the environment – was well under way and had attracted the talents and energy of America’s best-known architect, Maya Lin.

Now, the ambitious Confluence Project – planned for seven areas near the Columbia River where the Corps of Discovery and Native people intersected – is out of the box with something to look at. Its first site, at the forebodingly named Cape Disappointment in Washington state, has opened 200 years after the explorers came to the Pacific Ocean after a 4,132-mile trip from St. Louis. And while they do not slight the achievement of the explorers, Lin’s installations give prominent voice to the Indians present at the sites then and now.

A second site, near historic Fort Vancouver, is about to get under way, with a land bridge connecting the old fort to the riverfront.

Jacobsen, the Confluence Project’s executive director, explained the project’s genesis. In May of 1999, she was on a Lewis and Clark committee in Vancouver when the discussion turned to how to “understand the whole circle of the story through the tribes’ eyes watching them come – economic development, culture, environment. We got kind of pumped about that.”

In June of 1999, organizational meetings were held to pick the “confluence” meeting places, which needed to be mentioned in the Lewis and Clark journals and also be important to tribes. Most turned out to be publicly owned.

A confluence was forming around who should design the places as well. Jacobsen quickly thought of Lin, architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Ala. She felt that Lin, an extraordinarily empathetic and environmentally attuned landscape architect, would “help people think about the consequences for the next 200 years.”

And when she spoke to the city manager of Long Beach, near the Cape Disappointment site, he immediately said he thought Lin would be good for the task. Antone Minthorn, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, also brought her name up.

“Things were just lining up,” Jacobsen said. “Rarely do stars align like that.”

Next was the job of convincing the busy architect. But after a phone call and visit from a delegation to her New York City office, Jacobsen got a call from Lin on the day before Thanksgiving in 2000 and heard her say: “I’m going to do this for you guys.”

From that has come a $27 million art/history project at seven sites along the Columbia River, of which $21 million has been raised and $5.5 million spent to date. The money has come from federal, state and private sources and has supported a staff of three full-time and two part-time workers and the input of both civic and tribal leaders. Minthorn chairs the group’s board.

In April 2002, Jacobsen, Lin and Seattle architect John Paul Jones, Choctaw/Cherokee, visited Cape Disappointment. Lin was attracted to an old fish-cleaning station there and started thinking about salmon and its role in the environment and importance to tribes.

A visit to the site on a blustery summer day showed the care Lin, Jones and their associates have put into layering the story. There is a new fish cleaning station there, made of a block of basalt chosen by Lin and Peter Andrusko. Andrusko has cut into it a creation story of the Chinook tribe, who lived in the area 200 years and remain today.

Not far from the station is an observation deck. And landscaping has replanted some botany into what used to be a parking lot.

This same sense of equivalence and attention to the landscape extends to another installation nearby. A long boardwalk extends to Washington’s Waikiki Beach, the spot Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific on Nov. 7, 1805, and which is embroidered with details from their epic journey. Walking these planks both forward and backward (the captains had yet to retrace their steps, but would the next year) gives a sense of the arduous and wonderful journey they made which culminated there, as the last plank notes in Clark’s sturdy but slightly misspelled English: “to Cape Disappointment at the entrance of the Columbia River into the Great Pacific Ocean” more than 4,000 miles from their startoff point. Brief descriptions, such as “bad” for the Muscle Shell Rapids, or “bought a dog” accompany the inscriptions and their milestones. Who could resist an entry like “The Dome + Burrow or Village of Barking Squirrels” noted at mile 1,054, probably describing prairie dogs? Or the excitement and precision of the entry “To the Rockey Mountains at Pine Island Rapid,” 2,668 miles from the start?

But adjacent to the site is another road, with a different inscription cut into it – a beautiful praise song of the Chinook Tribe read by Chairman Gary Johnson at a dedication on Nov. 7, 2005, 200 years to the day after Lewis and Clark found the ocean. And it leads to a meditative circle of seven cedar columns, made of driftwood rescued from the beach.

Back in Vancouver, Jacobsen also showed the Fort Vancouver site. The fort, owned by the Hudson’s Bay Fur Trading company, hadn’t been built when the captains rowed past; but it was erected a couple of decades later and played a pivotal role in the economic and cultural trade between the British, who controlled the area before the United States did, and tribes that came to trade via river and camped nearby.

Two hundred years later, a highway separates the reconstructed fort from the river. This project, designed by Jones with assistance from Lin, plans to reconnect them by a land bridge over the highway. Not a motorway, the bridge is intended to recreate the old prairieland that once existed there before the highway, with local plants and inscriptions of the words “land,” “river” and “people” in the local tribes’ languages.

According to Jacobsen, the Parks Department is planning shoreline habitat restoration where the land bridge comes to the river, resulting in the recreation of a sandy beach much like the one Indians would have pulled up onto with their boats and canoes when they came to the fort.

Jacobsen said the project is forward-looking as well as retrospective, with Lin planning a “Confluence Center” in Clark County near the confluence of the Willamette and Columbia Rivers, with the hope of making a positive impact on the area.

The other four confluence projects, at Sandy River Delta, Celilo Falls Park, Sacajawea State Park and Chief Timothy Park, are hoped to be finished by 2008, she said.