It took more than 200 years, but an old wrong by the Corps of Discovery was made right Saturday, with the symbolic return of a stolen canoe to the Chinook Tribe by descendants of one of the Lewis and Clark Expedition leaders, William Clark.

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It took more than 200 years, but an old wrong by the Corps of Discovery was made right Saturday, with the symbolic return of a stolen canoe to the Chinook Tribe by descendants of one of the Lewis and Clark Expedition leaders, William Clark.

“We are here to right a wrong,” said Lotsie Holton of St. Louis, Mo., a seventh-generation descendant of William Clark, who traveled here with other members of the Clark extended family to take part in a ceremony gifting a $26,000, 36-foot-long oceangoing canoe to the tribe.

The canoe, paid for with private donations, represents repayment for a canoe stolen from the tribe by members of the Corps of Discovery of the Lewis and Clark Expedition during the miserable winter of 1805-6, when the corps learned the Chinooks, who held their canoes dear, would not trade for one.

Against the express directive of President Thomas Jefferson to never steal from the natives, the theft was a stain on the expedition, and, Holton felt, a wrong that should be corrected all these years later.

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Here with children and grandchildren to represent her family into the ninth generation, she said, “It’s never too late to apologize. We would like to make amends.”

President Jefferson dispatched the Corps on what would be a 4,000-mile journey to explore the Missouri River to its source, and establish the most direct water route to the Pacific, making scientific and geographic observations along the way. They were also to learn what they could of Indian tribes they encountered along the way.

The explorers started up the Missouri River from near St. Louis in May 1804. During the winter of 1805, they crossed the Columbia to the south side, where game was plentiful, to build a fort and camp for the winter before going home.

To the Chinook people, their canoes were everything: used for travel, trade, and even to carry the souls of their dead to the other side. The canoes were named, and considered members of the family.

To the Corps of Discovery, facing a long journey home, a canoe meant survival. So after Chinook tribesmen took six elk carcasses Corps hunters had left in the woods, the men rationalized their way to taking the canoe — even after a tribal chief had made restitution for the elk with three dogs.

On Saturday, Ray Gardner, chairman of the Chinook Tribe, received the canoe on behalf of the tribe in a private ceremony at Fort Columbia State Park, near Chinook, Pacific County, where his people had once lived, when the tribe numbered 50,000 strong, and had controlled trade from the Pacific Coast to The Dalles, Ore.

Clark family members delivered the canoe, walking it on their shoulders with the help of other well-wishers, to Gardner and members of the tribal council and other dignitaries gathered up the bluff from the Columbia River.

Salmon for a feast roasted on sticks around a fire, as tribal members, family and friends looked on, speeches, and small gifts were exchanged — and the canoe got its name.

The canoe is named Klmin (KlaMEEN), named for a hereditary chief, and translated as “moon.” Controller of the tides, it is an apt name for a canoe the tribe intends to use in tribal canoe journeys and other paddles on the waters of their ancestors, said Tony Johnson, head of the tribe’s culture committee, and emcee for the ceremony.

For Gardner, the reparation seemed bittersweet. Although his tribe’s canoe has been returned on behalf of the explorers, he said it is just a small piece of a larger history fraught with injustices as yet uncorrected. His people signed a treaty never ratified by the U.S. Congress, and the Chinook people have lost their lands and still seek official recognition by the U.S. government.

“It’s a great start to the healing,” Gardner said. “If an individual family can step up and correct a wrong, why can’t the federal government do the same thing?”

The idea to gift the canoe grew out of an effort by Holton’s husband to recruit a Native American member to the board of American Rivers, she said, on which Gardner serves. Over conversation in a coffee shop, the two realized the connection between Gardner and Lotsie. The rest, in this case, truly was history.

“This is a day for the history books,” Gardner said, looking over the crowd gathered to ceremonially receive the canoe. And with that, Chinook tribal leaders asked Clark family members to come join around the canoe as friends.

They offered them cedar boughs, and together they circled the canoe, brushing it with the fresh, green branches, to ceremonially cleanse it inside and out and remove, once and for all, any bad feelings before the canoe was to take its maiden voyage.

To many watching in the crowd, the day was more than symbolic, it was instructive.

“Contact is always happening; it didn’t just happen 200 years ago,” said Jim Sayce, liaison for the Washington State Historic Society. “It happens from heart to heart, between families. It’s about people, talking to people.”

Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or lmapes@seattletimes.com