confluence landbridge
Image: Andrew Brahe

A $12.25 million pedestrian land bridge, shown here under construction in October, will arc over a highway, reconnecting the Vancouver National Historic Reserve with the Columbia River.

On a wall behind Jane Jacobsen’s desk hangs a T-shirt showing a photograph of four Indians holding rifles. “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492,” the slogan reads. Next to it is a wooden paddle engraved with the words, “Congratulations on state funding for the Confluence Project. Now we’re up a creek with a paddle.”

Jacobsen, the executive director of the Confluence Project, works in an old brick building a few blocks from the Vancouver National Historic Reserve—once an early-19th-century trading post presided over by the Hudson’s Bay Company and later a U.S. Army fort—on the north bank of the Columbia River near downtown Vancouver. When I met with her there last fall, the girlish 58-year-old, who wore a plump smile and a halo of sandy curls, recalled that when plans were being laid in 1999 for the national Lewis and Clark bicentennial commemoration, the mood was celebratory.

Jacobsen, who was then directing the General George C. Marshall Lecture Series for the National Historic Reserve Trust, found the prevailing “Stephen Ambrose” version of the Lewis and Clark story unsatisfying. In the midst of her workdays she had casually befriended some of the Nez Perce Indians who came to the reserve grounds each year in April to honor the grave of an infant who had died there during the Indian Wars of the 1870s, when Nez Perce Indians were held captive at the fort. She thought Lewis and Clark’s legacy—instrumental as it was to the Euro-American resettlement of the Pacific Northwest—might be viewed differently by her Indian acquaintances. After mulling this over, she called David Nicandri, the director of the Washington State Historical Society, who was coordinating bicentennial events for the state, to propose a bold idea: What if they were to commission a series of artworks examining the Lewis and Clark legacy from the Native American perspective? And what if the artist were Maya Lin—a figure who had proven so adept at reconciling differing intranational myths?

Nicandri laughed. By an odd coincidence, Antone Minthorn, chairman of the board of trustees of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, had called from Pendleton minutes earlier with the same idea. Nicandri suggested they both talk to Nabiel Shawa, city manager of Long Beach, the community on the Washington peninsula near where Lewis and Clark had finally reached the ocean. Shawa related to Jacobsen that he, too, had been thinking, wishfully, about a major project involving Maya Lin.

For Jacobsen, it was too much of a coincidence.

“You can’t let go of an idea like that. It’s like catching a falling star,” she recalled last fall.

With the help of Minthorn and other tribal representatives they recruited, Jacobsen petitioned Lin for a year and a half (sending letters and an ambassador to her Manhattan studio—at one point even mailing a box of stones, shells and feathers gathered from various parts of the region in a last-ditch effort to get her attention). Then her real work began. She founded the nonprofit that bears the project’s name, involved scores of political stakeholders and research consultants, and called upon private philanthropists, foundations and state and national legislators to raise the $27 million it will cost to complete and endow the project. (Despite the fact that two of the artworks will be on the Oregon side of the river, the Oregon State Legislature had at press time committed no money to the project, compared to the Washington Legislature’s $8 million.) She still has $4.5 million left to go. “It’s not like asking for help purchasing a Renoir,” she notes. “It takes awhile for people to comprehend this story of the Pacific Northwest.”

As we walked the grounds near her office, Jacobsen noted that the reserve itself—today a haven for nonprofits, small businesses and artists’ lofts—exemplifies just how complicated the story is. Even before it was developed by Hudson’s Bay, it had been an international trading ground for native people; they converged there from points along the Columbia and Willamette Rivers and from the Klickitat Trail, which extended east beyond the Cascades.

The pedestrian land bridge that the Confluence Project was readying to build there, designed by Seattle-based Native American landscape architect Johnpaul Jones in consultation with Lin, would arc over the highway that runs parallel to the river, reconnecting the reserve’s grounds to the riverbank and reinstating the connection between the land and the water. Near the water’s edge, Lin would create an artwork representing a treaty table.

Jacobsen petitioned Lin for a year and a half, at one point even mailing a box of stones, shells and feathers gathered from various parts of the region in a last-ditch effort to get her attention.

“It’s all woven together,” Jacobsen said. “This whole place is incredibly deep with history.”

As is the entire river system that Lin is in the process of subtly reshaping—in an obstacle—ridden attempt to meaningfully bring that history to the public’s attention.