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February 2003

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Searching for Sacagawea

By Margaret Talbot
MAY 14, 1805, started off auspiciously for the Lewis and Clark expedition, but by evening a gusty wind was blowing along the Missouri River, threatening disaster. It was late afternoon when a sudden squall nearly capsized one of the boats, the white pirogue that carried the most vital instruments, trade goods, and papers—"in short," wrote Meriwether Lewis, "almost every article indispensibly necessary to further the views, or insure the success of the enterprize."

At the helm of the pirogue, alas, was Toussaint Charbonneau, the French-Canadian fur trader who served as an interpreter for the expedition. Charbonneau had an unfortunate tendency to panic in a crisis, which, coupled with the fact that he couldn't swim, made him, in Lewis's estimation, "perhaps the most timid waterman in the world."

Lewis and Clark themselves were stranded on shore, reduced to shooting into the air in a futile attempt to attract the crew's attention. The waves were mounting higher, the boat was filling to its gunwales, and Charbonneau, who was "crying to his god for mercy," had "not yet recollected the rudder." Lewis was about to hurl himself into the river when it occurred to him that swimming the 300 yards (274 meters) to the boat in freezing, turbulent water would be "madness." To convince the petrified Charbonneau to do his duty and take hold of the rudder, another man on board the pirogue finally threatened to shoot him.

Amid all the shouting and gunshots and waves, however, there was one member of the expedition who proved calm and resourceful: Charbonneau's teenage wife, Sacagawea, the only woman in the party. Though no one seems to have instructed her to, Sacagawea reached into the water and fished out the articles that were swiftly floating away from the boat. A day and a half later, with most of these precious goods dried and repacked, Lewis realized the expedition had averted disaster.

"The Indian woman," he wrote in his journal on May 16, "to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person onboard at the time of the accedent, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard."

It is one of those rare but powerful moments in the journals that make you long to know more about this woman whom we recognize mostly as a sturdy figure of American mythology—a face on a coin. The very sketchiness of our knowledge has permitted novelists, feminists, and Native American tribes with dueling claims to project what they wish upon Sacagawea, to see her as a metaphor more than a human being. But who was she, really?

There was no likeness made of Sacagawea in her lifetime, and there is nothing left that belonged to her. The glimpses we are allowed of her in the expedition journals are all through the eyes of men to whom much about her must have been utterly opaque. And yet through the journals we know more about Sacagawea than about almost any other Indian woman of her time.

Lewis and Clark first met Sacagawea when she was a girl of about 17, pregnant with her first child. It was November 1804, and the Corps of Discovery, as the expedition was known, had arrived among the Mandan and Hidatsa Indian tribes on the upper Missouri River, in what is now North Dakota. The explorers planned to winter there among these agricultural tribes known to be friendly to whites, tribes whose earth lodge villages—dotted with gardens of squash, beans, sunflowers, and corn—made up a conurbation that was larger than St. Louis at the time.

From the age of about 13 Sacagawea had lived with the Hidatsa near the confluence of the Missouri and Knife Rivers. The place is now a national historic site, and one day last summer I spent some time there trying to reimagine Sacagawea's world. None of the original earth lodges remain, but one beautiful replica helps tune the senses to that distant time. The lodge's interior is spacious and cool, and smells pleasantly of hide and smoke. Light streams through the single hole in the earth- and-willow-branch roof like a golden column.

With me that afternoon was Amy Mossett, a Mandan-Hidatsa from New Town, North Dakota, and an expert on Sacagawea. Thin and elegant with a cascade of nearly waist-length black hair, Mossett is something of a celebrity as a Sacagawea stand-in. Her image appears in travel brochures and on billboards promoting tourism—an uphill battle in North Dakota, among the least visited states in the country. She has lectured and told stories about Sacagawea everywhere from kindergarten classrooms to convents to a biker convention.

On a bluff above the narrow gray-green Knife, Mossett and I look out over shallow, bowl-shaped indentations in the ground that are the only suggestions of the earth lodges that once stood close together here. (So close, in fact, that smallpox spread rapidly when it struck here in the 1830s.) Around us the ground is strewn with shells and bleached bits of animal bones. Even on this warm mid-summer afternoon, the prairie wind feels powerful, rattling the historical placards, riffling the surface of the Knife, keeping up a steady sibilance in the cottonwood leaves. It carries the scent of wild mint and prairie roses.

"This is where I feel closest to Sacagawea," says Mossett, who likes to wander around here by herself and think about where, exactly, Sacagawea might have lived on this land. Sometimes, Mossett says, she can almost see her walking along the river, peering up at the sky and spotting eagles.

It has been customary to describe Sacagawea as a slave of the Hidatsa, sold in marriage to Toussaint Charbonneau. But terms like "slave" and "sold" can be misleading. She was certainly a war captive, kidnapped from the Shoshone, the tribe into which she had been born, by a Hidatsa war party some four years before Lewis and Clark showed up. But when present-day Hidatsa such as Mossett object to the term "slave," they have a point, says historian Carolyn Gilman.

"Plains Indians did have a type of slavery, but it was different and more ambiguous than the kind practiced in the American South," says Gilman, curator of the National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Exhibition, which is being organized by the Missouri Historical Society. "A onetime slave could be adopted by a clan, for example, and his or her status could change. It was a more fluid identity."

It's also hard to say definitively that Sacagawea was "sold" to Charbonneau. As Gilman points out, "Euro-Americans observing Indian weddings often talked about the women being 'sold,' mistaking the exchange of gifts between the families for purchases." More-over, in the early 19th century there was a great deal of intermarriage between white (especially French) fur traders and Indian women, and these alliances generally conferred some advantages on the woman. "That may have changed over time as tribes got more acquainted with white society and more contemptuous of it," says Gilman. "But in Sacagawea's time being a trader's wife was still a mark of status."

In any case, Euro-American explorers, Lewis and Clark included, tended to take ample note of how hard Indian women worked while overlooking the power they wielded. The Hidatsa, for example, was a matrilineal society in which women owned the earth lodges and gardens—this at a time when married Euro-American women could not own property in their own name—and men moved into their mothers-in-law's lodges when they married.

But while marrying a trader might have been a good move in general, Charbonneau may not have been a great catch. He has the sort of shabby reputation that seems impervious to revisionism, though in fairness it may owe something to blustering Francophobia. Gary Moulton, editor of the definitive edition of the Lewis and Clark journals, notes that historians have portrayed Charbonneau as "a coward, a bungler, and a wife-beater." Clark recorded that Charbonneau hit Sacagawea on at least one occasion—along with the fact that he upbraided him for doing so.

There aren't many occasions in the journals when Sacagawea attracts the captains' notice, but those that do tend to be dramatic moments rendered in characteristically laconic prose and decidedly unfussy spelling. In February 1805, at the fort the corps had built for itself near the Mandan and Hidatsa villages, Sacagawea "was delivered of a fine boy," Captain Lewis recorded. "It is worthy of remark that this was the first child which this woman had boarn and as is common in such cases her labor was tedious and the pain vilent." A French-Canadian trader named René Jusseaume administered a tribal remedy for speeding up labor—a small portion of a rattlesnake's rattle. "Whether this medicine was truly the cause or not," Lewis noted, Sacagawea "brought forth" Jean Baptiste Charbonneau within ten minutes.

The Corps of Discovery set out from its winter quarters on April 7, 1805. Less than two months after giving birth, Sacagawea gathered up her infant son and embarked with her husband on a roughly 5,000-mile (8,000 kilometer), 16-month journey. Contrary to her romanticized image, however, Sacagawea was not the expedition's "girl-guide." On a few occasions in Shoshone country she recognized features of the landscape and was able to reassure the captains that they were heading in the right direction. But most of the territory they passed through was as unfamiliar to her as it was to Lewis and Clark.

Still, in ways both large and small Sacagawea proved herself an asset. Throughout their travels she supplemented the men's diets with wild artichokes and other edible plants she found and dug up. Lewis thought that "our epicures would admire" the root called the white apple. "It would serve them in their ragouts and gravies in stead of the truffles morella."

One of Sacagawea's greatest contributions was her mere presence, which seems to have disarmed potentially hostile tribes along the way. As Clark wrote, "The wife of Shabono our intepreter we find reconsiles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions a woman with a party of men is a token of peace."

In mid-August, when the captains met with the leaders of the Shoshone and called upon Sacagawea's services as a translator, the journals record one of those fortunate coincidences you usually forgive only in beloved movies from childhood. Sacagawea, who spoke Hidatsa and Shoshone but neither English nor French, was to translate the Shoshone chief's words into Hidatsa for Charbonneau, who was to translate into French for a member of the corps named Labiche, who would translate into English for the captains. They were just about to begin this unwieldy relay when Sacagawea suddenly "jumped up, and ran and embraced" the Shoshone chief, "throwing over him her blanket and weeping profusely." He was, of all people, her long-lost brother.

Sacagawea's reaction on this occasion surprised Lewis, who had written her off as an inscrutable "squaw" of little feeling. Clark was different. Popular historical novels and plays about the expedition written in the 20th century hint at a romantic (though properly sublimated) attraction between Sacagawea and one of the captains, usually Clark. There is no evidence whatsoever for that scenario, and yet it does seem fair to say, even at this distant vantage point, that a genuine fondness developed between Sacagawea and William Clark. He had a nickname for her—Janey—and doted on Jean Baptiste, whom he called Pomp or Pompy or "my little danceing boy Baptiest." For her part, Sacagawea gave Clark a Christmas present of two dozen white weasel tails.

"Clark protected her," says Amy Mossett. "He put her out of harm's way during a flash flood early on. She and her husband and son slept in the same tent as the captains for her protection. I think she was fond of William Clark in the way a younger sister is of an older brother who looks out for her."

On the return voyage, just a few days after leaving the Charbonneau family at the Mandan villages in August 1806, Clark wrote a letter to Charbonneau that is remarkable for its openness of heart toward companions of the road he seems truly, already, to be missing. In it he regrets not having compensated Sacagawea for her services and offers repeatedly to pay for the education of "my little" Jean Baptiste. The child was then 18 months old, and Clark regarded him, he wrote in his journal, as "a butifull promising Child." (This offer he eventually made good on: Jean Baptiste was educated in St. Louis at Clark's expense and went on to become the traveling companion of a European prince.)

"I think the baby was an important bond," says Mossett. "You can't be with a child every day from the day he was born and not develop an attachment. When you're tired, so weary, way out there in the unknown, and you don't know who or what you're going to encounter next, a little child coming up to and smiling or laughing or even just looking at you, it would pick up your spirits, it would soften your heart. It would remind you of why you're doing this—for the future."

Of all the episodes in which Sacagawea plays a part, there is only one in which she expresses a longing of her own. One afternoon at Fort Clatsop, in what is now Oregon, Captain Clark announced that he would be taking a party out to the coast to see a beached whale. He wrote, "The last evening Shabono and his Indian woman was very impatient to be permitted to go with me, and was therefore indulged, She observed that She had traveled a long way with us to See the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be Seen, she thought it verry hard that She Could not be permitted to See either (She had never yet been to the Ocian.)"

There is no record of what Sacagawea said or felt when she saw the great waters, but the moment is rich still. If she were a character in a novel, it would be the first hint of an inner life to which we'd soon be admitted in full. In Sacagawea's story it is the deepest insight we get.

After the 21 months in which Sacagawea's story intersects with that of the expedition, she disappears almost entirely from our view. The best evidence we have suggests that she died in her mid-20s at Fort Manuel on the Missouri River shortly after giving birth to a daughter, Lisette. A year later, when Charbonneau was presumed dead (incorrectly, as it turned out—he lived into his eighties), Clark became Lisette's guardian. But there is no record of the girl after the age of one, and most historians believe she died very young.

Today there are reportedly more statues of Sacagawea than of any other American woman. Many of them were erected early in the last century with the support of local women's clubs and suffragists like Susan B. Anthony. Several of these monuments—like the lovely one in Portland, Oregon's Washington Park in which Sacagawea resembles a winged victory—make her look older than she was during the expedition, and grander, not a teenager dragged along but a woman who led.

In the hundred years or so after the expedition Sacagawea was nothing like the icon she has since become. The journals languished mostly unread, and there was little to remind Americans of Sacagawea's contributions to a party of discovery that had, in any case, been overshadowed by the legends of other 19th-century frontiersmen. It was the suffragists, on the lookout for a folk heroine, who rediscovered her. In their portrayals Sacagawea was both an Indian "princess" and a patriotic American. With a little rhetorical exertion, her services to Thomas Jefferson and his vision could be fashioned into an argument for rewarding all American women with the vote.

For many years after her rediscovery, most of the white Americans who wrote about Sacagawea seized upon her as the archetypal "good Indian," one who, like Pocahontas, had aided white men. But in the past couple of decades, and especially for Native Americans, Sacagawea has become a different sort of symbol: a reminder of the extent to which the Lewis and Clark story is also a Native American story. The expedition was, as the historian James Ronda has written, not a "'tour of discovery' through an empty West" but a "diverse human community moving through the lands and lives of other communities." Lately, historians have taken to studying the expedition's mutually informative encounters with native populations and have been more interested in Lewis and Clark as pioneering naturalists and ethnographers than as standard-bearers of manifest destiny. At times this has meant paying less attention to Sacagawea, taking pains not to focus on her as the token Indian presence in the story. "For a long time, Sacagawea was representative of all native people," says Ronda. "A lot of folks seemed to think, If I mention her, I don't have to mention other native people. I've done my job."

But if you think of her as the native informant closest to Lewis and Clark, then she acquires a new symbolic significance. "I see her as a source of pride for all the tribes," says Amy Mossett. "I know of at least seven tribes that have oral traditions about her or someone like her. I see that as a sign of their really wanting to have some connection to the woman who went on the journey with Lewis and Clark."

For some Native Americans, disputes about Sacagawea's life and legacy—where and when she died, even how to spell and pronounce her name—are of far more than academic interest. For the 400 or so remaining Lemhi Shoshone, who live on a reservation in Idaho, the connection to Sacagawea is one thread on which to hang their hopes for federal tribal recognition and a return of the ancestral lands they say were stripped from them. For the Wind River Shoshone in Wyoming, the connection to the woman they insist is "Sacajawea" (their spelling) and who died on their reservation (most historians dispute this) could anchor them in the Lewis and Clark story, if only they could get people to believe she's really buried there.

Amy Mossett sometimes wonders why Sacagawea didn't stay behind with the Shoshone when the expedition met up with the band headed by her brother. For Mossett the fact that she did not means that Sacagawea had come to feel more like a Hidatsa than a Shoshone. For Carolyn Gilman it suggests that "her experiences may have made her one of those people permanently stuck between cultures, not entirely welcome in her new life nor able to return to her old."

I like to think there was another reason Sacagawea did not stay behind: because by then she wanted to go on—that she, too, had been seized with curiosity about what came next, and where the journey would take her.


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