- The Indian Vocabularies
In November 2009, pregnant with my second child, I set out for Lewis and Clark’s winter camp near the mouth of the Columbia River, where it meets the Pacific. Motherhood was a strange new shore to me, a hard wilderness. I wanted to know about these explorers who in November 1805 had arrived here—in the Northwest I love and now call home—miserable, wary, and frightened. I started with children’s books, curious about how the explorers’ wet Pacific arrival has been portrayed as a glossy joy, or a moral lesson, over the past two hundred years. In the University of Washington’s archives I found a nineteenth-century language primer that boiled down the arrival into a handful of one- and two-syllable words. What white Americans teach children about explorers, Indians, and wilderness has changed quite a bit, and in some ways has not changed at all.
That first November, I dragged my husband and two-year-old out to the Pacific with me, and thanks to a grant [End Page 50] from the 4Culture Foundation stayed a month in a little cabin on Washington’s Long Beach peninsula, taking day trips and reading Lewis and Clark’s journals, as well as Rex Ziak’s careful study In Full View, to follow the explorers’ days alongside my own. I had also been reading Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior, and admired his ability to carry two tracks of imagery at once—the observed landscape and the interior one—as he traveled. He didn’t travel with a two-year-old—which felt to me less like two trains running and more like a cloud of asterisks. But Basho’s haibun form, with its fragments of prose and poetry, let me map where I was, which was often several places at once.
I had intended, after I returned from my trip, to be done. But the more I read about the explorers’ arrival at the Pacific, the more I was struck by the variation I heard in different accounts. A poor student of history, I hadn’t understood how much our sense of history is shaped by the telling, the chosen verbs and the gaps between one sentence and the next. I was the first of my friends to have children, and I was often asked, How is it? How’s your writing? Sometimes I tried to answer with the gaps I found. There was the sunny morning, for example, when the explorers were about to reach the Pacific. Just short of that final mile, they brought their boats in to a tiny beach and changed their clothes. At this point, a storm came in and held them to the beach, which they named Dismal Nitch, for days. When the tide came in that night, covering the shore, the explorers had to balance on slick, rolling driftwood, hearing the logs batter each other in the blackness. I was beginning to think about how we talk about failure. It took me three years to find a historian who addressed why the men might have landed their boats there in the first place. It was customary to wear your best finery the last mile of the way, he said. The explorers had likely been changing into the triumphant costumes they’d carried all this way, in their wet, flea-infested bags. I was hooked.
Two years later, I returned to a landscape similar to the explorers’ winter camp, thanks to a monthlong residency at the H. J. Andrews Experimental Forest in Oregon, where teams of scientists run two-hundred-year-long studies. That November I composed a second haibun, relying less on the explorers’ journals and more on Native scholarship and history, particularly Colin Caboway’s overview, One Vast Winter Count.
I grew increasingly curious about the fate of the twenty-three Indian vocabularies—standardized lists of English words and their Native equivalents—that then-president Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to collect on their journey. The vocabularies, as most accounts had it, were either lost or, if more detail was given, stolen from a boat and thrown overboard into...