Living in the past

Jefferson City man spends time portraying American Indians
Friday, October 3, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:07 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 2, 2008

For 40 years, Richard Gaffney has lived in the past. “I don’t live in this century, you see. I just visit from time to time,” Gaffney said.

His fascination with the history of American Indians extends beyond passive research into the realm of active participation.

Over the course of his lifetime, Gaffney, 67, has taught himself to make fringed leather leggings, moccasins and birch bark rattles. His headpiece is adorned with elaborate beadwork, a craft Gaffney has been practicing for nearly half a century. And during the 1950s he lived with a Penobscot family in Maine for three years.

“I like to speak of things from a position of knowledge — not as a spectator but as a participant,” Gaffney said.

In that vein, Gaffney has portrayed several personas at events and parades, most of them American Indians. But his latest character, Georges Drouillard, is the one Gaffney feels the most connection with.

Drouillard was one of the two nonmilitary members of the Corps of Discovery, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s journey from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean and back. As a valued hunter and interpreter, Drouillard helped the explorers avoid conflict and starvation.

Like Drouillard, Gaffney is part French-Canadian and part Shawnee Indian. “Here I am, part Indian living in a white society — I can pass, yet I choose to identify with the Indian side of my ancestry. Georges Drouillard also chose to remain Indian, even though he could have passed for white in society,” Gaffney said.

This marks Gaffney’s second year portraying Drouillard. His last performance was at the Lewis and Clark Trading Days in Jefferson City on Saturday.

Ray and Agnes Elderd were among the 25 people who sat on hay bales under the shade of an outdoor tent and listened to Gaffney’s presentation. Since April, the Elderds have been touring the United States in their motor home and attending as many Lewis and Clark celebrations as they can find. “The historical presentation that Richard Gaffney gave was really very interesting,” Ray Elderd said.

Gaffney, of Jefferson City, spent the past 24 years as chief watershed planner at the state Department of Natural Resources before retiring. He describes himself as a lifelong educator, not only during his half century of work with the Boy Scouts but also in his career as a planner.

David Gaffney, one of Gaffney’s three sons, said his father is considering writing a book about Drouillard. “He has done a tremendous amount of research and thinks that he has a good answer as to why Drouillard went along with Lewis and Clark,” David Gaffney said.

Richard Gaffney acknowledges that he has a penchant for talking at length about history. “We learned young not to ask him a question unless we had a lot of time,” David Gaffney said.

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