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Montana tribes plan active role in Lewis-Clark Bicentennial

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HELENA, Mont. - Spurred by the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial, tribal leaders are forming a new coalition to coordinate events and activities on Montana's seven Indian reservations.

Efforts to organize the Montana Tribal Tourism Alliance (MTTA) have been under way the past year, says Darrell Martin, tourism director for the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes on the Fort Belknap Reservation. Bylaws were drawn, an interim president and vice president are in place and organizers are plowing through paperwork so the group can become a tax-exempt entity.

"The lawyers are looking at it right now," Martin said. "It's been a lot of hard work."

Tribal councils on six reservations have approved resolutions supporting the group, he said, and the Rocky Boy's Reservation is expected to sign on soon. Incorporation is expected by next summer.

Nationwide commemoration of the Lewis and Clark Expedition's journeys from St. Louis, up the Missouri River, and on to the Pacific Coast officially begin in 2003. Major events are expected to subside in 2006. Some analysts predict as many as 9 million visitors could be drawn to Montana during the period, all seeking a piece of the explorers' lore.

Tribes don't want to become lost in the shuffle, considering that Lewis and Clark relied heavily on Indian people to help them on their way.

Martin and other tribal leaders said another aspect that must not be forgotten is that the expedition opened the door to westward expansion, resulting in the near-extermination of tribes.

"We want to tell our story ourselves," Martin said, adding the group will focus on directing more tourists to reservation activities and businesses not connected to the bicentennial. "Lewis and Clark is just one of the fractions."

On the Fort Belknap Reservation, for example, there are historical and cultural tours, nearly unlimited venues for camping, hiking and photography ventures, as well as non-member hunting opportunities for buffalo and pronghorn antelope.

"Old mining, gunfights, we have it all," Martin said.

On the Flathead Reservation in western Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes run a first-class resort, a high-mountain wilderness area and control the southern bed and banks of Flathead Lake, the largest, natural fresh-water body this side of the Mississippi.

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On the Blackfeet Reservation, nearby Glacier National Park already draws millions of visitors from around the world. The state's other reservations are also developing tourism outlets as a way to diversify their economies.

"It all boils down to economics and that's one of the reasons for MTTA," Martin said. "It will be kind of a clearinghouse, if you will." The group is working closely with the state Department of Commerce's Travel Montana program and Martin says Republican Gov. Marc Racicot is supporting the efforts, as well. In time, the alliance plans to establish a headquarters in a central area of the state, Martin said. There are plans to publish a tribal tourism magazine.

The 1997 Legislature, recognizing the need to prepare for the commemoration, created the 12-member Montana Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commission, based in Helena. Executive Director Clint Blackwood says the group is committed to working with tribes.

"We don't want to be the ones trying to tell your story," Blackwood told a recent meeting of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council. "Our invitation is for you to share that with others."

"The Blackfeet believed Lewis and Clark were trespassers," James St. Goddard of Browning told the group. "That's the part that needs to be exposed - the detriments to Indian people."

"We'll help you any way we can," Blackwood responded. "You're the ones in the driver's seat. It's what Lewis and Clark didn't write in their journals. It's the context they didn't have."

Blackwood said the commission would like to record Native American oral histories about the arrival of Lewis and Clark but any efforts would be up to individual tribes and their traditions and prohibitions.

"But we don't want to sit at a state commission level and decide for you," he said. "We can't. You can stand in the corner and throw rocks. The other side of it is to get involved."

Joseph McConnell, chairman of the Fort Belknap Community Council, said tribes need to take a hard look at their decisions, especially considering that Lewis and Clark events will be a form of sorely-needed economic development. "This is a good opportunity to tap into that."

Blackwood said three American Indians - Martin, Curley Youpee from the Fort Peck Tribes and Darrell Kipp from the Blackfeet Tribe - serve on the bicentennial commission.

While the clock is ticking, he said there's still time for tribes to chart their own commemorative paths, whatever they may be.

"This is not the last word."