Clark’s descendants replace stolen tribal canoe

Long Beach, Washington (AP) October 2011

It was a long time coming, but the descendants of explorer William Clark have tried to make amends for a 205-year-old theft.

A descendant of the explorer in the Corps of Discovery expedition that opened a land route to the West presented the Chinook Indian Nation with a replica of a canoe that the corps stole in 1806.

Some of Clark’s descendants and a few donors stepped forward to pay for the canoe, which was custom built in Veneta, Ore. The five-hour ceremony included songs, gift exchanges and the maiden voyage of the replica canoe. 

Ray Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Nation’s tribal council, said the return of the canoe is a “good place to begin healing.”

“It’s nice to see a circle completed,” Gardner said.

After completing their journey west and spending a wet and wretched winter at the mouth of the Columbia River in 1806, Clark and Meriwether Lewis found they were short a canoe, so they stole one from the Clatsop Indians who had kept them alive all winter.

The Clatsop later became one of five tribes to form the Chinook Indian Nation.

It has long been a sore subject with the tribes in the Pacific Northwest, who perceived the theft as a major insult. Canoes were a sacred part of their culture and an important mode of transportation.

The Chinook Indian Nation is not formally recognized by the U.S. government. Federal recognition would make the tribe eligible for economic assistance, land, housing grants and other government benefits.

“I cannot help but think, if one family can step forward and right a wrong that has been committed against the Chinook nation 205 years later,” Gardner said, “it would be nice if the federal government would do the same.”

Clark’s descendant, Lotsie Clark Holton, said she was overwhelmed by the acceptance of her family by Chinook tribe members.

Holton learned of the theft while working at a Washington, D.C., nonprofit with Gardner, setting the events in motion. 

“It’s been a wonderful experience. The Chinook people totally accepted us,” Holton said. “After 205 years, it was certainly overdue.”