The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the first completed Confluence Project artwork took place on the afternoon of April 22, 2006, a warm, cloudless day on Washington’s Long Beach Peninsula. A crowd of 250 or so celebrants gathered in a parking area next to the boat launch at Cape Disappointment State Park, near the presumed site where Lewis and Clark first gazed upon the Pacific Ocean.
A few hundred yards away, a stream of visitors wandered along two unfinished commemorative pathways leading from a parking lot toward the ocean through a sea of fine gray sand and freshly laid bark dust dotted sparsely with native seedlings. One oyster shell-covered path led to a cul-de-sac, where a circle of weathered cedar logs, or “totems” as Lin calls them, ringed a 225-year-old tree stump, evoking the seven directions recognized by Native Americans of the region (north, south, east, west, up, down and within). The other arced toward the ocean; its concrete pavers were inscribed with the names of the tributaries of the Columbia River, which Lewis and Clark recorded on their journey; numerals and directional abbreviations noted each tributary’s distance from the river’s mouth, along with other locational data; and blank pavers represented the distance, approximately to scale, between the tributaries. This created the effect of retracing the footsteps of the expedition in miniature.
Onlookers exclaimed, “Cool!” and, “Honey, did you see this?” as they proceeded along a conventional asphalt path from the parking lot to the boat launch area, where the other portion of Lin’s work guarded the water’s edge: a hunk of basalt, outfitted with a fully plumbed sink and inscribed with the Chinook creation myth. It was a wry update of a cruddy, stainless-steel fish-cleaning station that preceded Lin’s redesign in this location. The myth told of a thunderbird, the creator of humankind, that took shape from a fish cut the wrong way—across its side, instead of down its back.
A lone protestor had planted himself to the left of the podium. A stocky, bearded, middle-aged, apparently Caucasian man, he wore a Chehalis basket on his head and a blue-and-red felt cloak. He held aloft a series of signs: “_Kais_! Not Cape ‘D,’” “_Yakaill Wimakl_, not Columbia River,” “Maya, why do you immortalize U.S. theft?” and “Can an artist be a prostitute for U.S. colonialism?” He seemed to lack sympathizers, and a Chinook I spoke with later confirmed the obvious: that he was a wannabe Indian. But his presence seemed to affirm the event’s historical weight.
The speeches began. Jacobsen welcomed the diverse crowd and expressed hope that Lin’s redesign of the park would mean “whatever you need for it to mean to make this world a better place.” The speakers lauded Lin’s near-oracular abilities as an intercultural translator—Jacobsen quoted one of the Indians who’d traveled to New York to meet with the architect: “My words come from my heart to my eyes, my eyes to your eyes, your eyes to your heart”—and her international notoriety. Next up was former Washington governor Gary Locke, like Lin a Yale graduate and a fellow member of Committee of 100, an advocacy group composed of influential Chinese-Americans. Locke, who had been instrumental in securing Lin’s involvement in the project, predicted that people would “come to the sites because of her stature and fame,” pointing out that “no other state can claim as many artworks by Maya Lin.”
After a hokey poem about the ocean by fisher poet Dave Densmore, Lin herself appeared, dressed in a black peacoat and sunglasses and flanked by her two similarly attired young daughters, and gave a brief overview of the artworks. Then came Chinook tribal chairman Gary Johnson, who recited a traditional prayer. A group of Chinook drummers dressed in cloaks resembling the protestor’s beat a mournful song, drowned out for a moment by a droning motor and caterwauling yeeee! from a passing speedboat.
On the way out, I stopped at the park convenience store to buy a soda for the road. Greeting me was a display of various Lewis and Clark tchotchkes—spoons, T-shirts, a cookbook, stickers (the only package remaining featured images of Sacajawea and the slave York, and it seemed to have been sitting there a long time)—which were, evidently, the competing narratives against which Lin’s artwork would be appraised. I asked the woman at the counter what she thought of the project. Would it attract more tourists to the park?
None of the other bicentennial stuff had, she said, but at least it would give people who were already there something else to see.
“People here don’t take care of things. The fish-cleaning table, people will use it. I can see it all covered in fish guts, and the edges—they’re squared, right? They’re probably going to get chipped off.”
Besides a rather profound cynicism, the statement expressed a misunderstanding of Lin’s intention that the table actually be used. But as I considered correcting the woman, she reappraised the relative virtues of her fellow man.
“Or maybe—who knows? Maybe they’ll keep this one thing nice.”