Amidst the dense foliage of Washington Park stands a life-sized bronze statue of a mythical looking woman with her hand reaching forward and a baby strapped to her back. The jagged rock supporting the statue acts as a pedestal bolstering her ethereal presence.
As one of the most memorialized women in American history, she has left a tangible presence on the geographical landscape: she has rivers, parks, and many a statue named after her. A plaque in the US National park establishes her multi-faceted identity: “Interpretess. Wife. Mother. Explorer. Peacemaker.” But it is important to note that this enigmatic personality, rendered as a real-time depiction of superwoman, was nearly forgotten by history, overshadowed by her male counterparts till the early 20th century American Suffragette movement decided to revive her, and erected memorials of her around the country as an ode to her contribution to the American project. That woman is Sacagawea. And this is her story.
Born in 1788 to a Shoshone tribe (settled in present-day Idaho), Sacagawea was kidnapped at the age of twelve by a group of Hidatsa invaders who brought her back to their hometown (now located in North Dakota). They sold her to a French fur trader Touissant Charbonneau to be one of his wives. But the non-consensual and polygamous union, aimed to objectify and domesticate her, ended up being an unexpected reversal of fortune.
Charbonneau was soon hired by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, American explorers tasked with the exploration and mapping of the vast territory gained by the Louisiana Purchase. The Louisiana Purchase, in an ethical grey area of politics and imperial expansion, was Thomas Jefferson’s literal purchase of the French colony in North America that nearly doubled the landmass of the United States.
Lewis in his diaries referred to Charbonneau as a “man of little merit”. But it was obvious that his only merit to command a seat on the crew was his bilingual and Native wife. And so the pregnant sixteen-year-old Sacagawea became the most vital member of the crew. With her impeccable juggling of roles between nursing mother, caretaker, explorer, food gatherer, terrain expert, and negotiator she became the “ultimate working mother”, a true icon for centuries to come.
The Hidatsa meaning of Sacagawea translates to “bird woman”. There could perhaps be no other title better suited to explain her ecological prowess. While treacherous and unfamiliar terrain and hostile climate conspired against the expedition, Sacagawea sharing an affinity with the rocky land became the terrain expert. While extreme temperatures made food procurement tough, Sacagawea dug up wild artichokes and apples from the ground, identifying edible plants and proving herself as a highly-skilled food gatherer. And she did all this whilst enduring the last few months of pregnancy, labor, birth, and carrying her son, Jean Baptist Charbonneau on her back ensuring his safety and survival for the two years of the expedition. In his journals, Clark refers to her as a “snake woman” as a result of her intimate relationship with nature and her ease in maneuvering through wildlands.
An event chronicled by Clark’s diary reveals that when a boat was capsized by water, Sacagawea dove right in to collect important documents, maps in the making, and saved whatever she could. She did all this with her baby strapped securely to her!
While her physical contribution was unprecedented, the image of a Native mother and baby also became, in Lewis’ words, a “token of peace” for other Native populations the party encountered. She became a vital resource – a friendly face speaking a familiar tongue – without which the Natives would have deemed it a hostile invasion. And with this amiable persona, she successfully forged alliances with tribes, bartered horses, and sought shelter when necessary.
However, as a history enthusiast, the greatest loss in her legacy for me has been the lack of her own perspective and words. Yes, she has been enshrined as the all-knowing guide of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the force of nature that helped weather all storms. Yes, she has also been featured on the Golden dollar, which is truly a great win for herstory. And she has been given due credit for her involvement in the annexation of Western America, thanks to her sensationalization via the Suffragette movement. But whatever we know about her today, we know through the Lewis and Clark’s mementos and diaries. They praised her because she was a tool they used to achieve their means. She has been cast as the model ally through the colonizer’s perspective.
What I want to know is how she felt about all this. I want to know how she felt when her name was Anglicized to “Janey” for white men’s convenience. (Was Sacagawea so difficult to pronounce or remember?) I want to know how she felt about the colonizer’s otherization of Native populations. I want to know how she may have reacted, any feeling of reprehension she felt when they talked about eliminating them, when they talked about the land being uninhabited when in fact; it was already home to diverse cultures and populations. And most of all, I want to know how she felt when Charbonneau received 320 acres of land and $500.33 for his service whilst Sacagawea received no compensation.
But I guess these are all gaps left by recorded history that are perennially lost to us. Most of her life before and after the expedition is shrouded in mystery. Even her eventual death is shadowed by speculation. Legend and some Native American oral tradition suggest that she left Charbonneau and returned to the Shoshone tribe and died in 1884, at the age of 96. Other historical documents claiming accuracy suggest by the age of 24, she “had become sickly and longed to visit her Native country”, and she died soon after in 1812, leaving behind two children who were officially adopted by William Clark.
Today, these conflicting historical records are physically represented by two separate graves, several hundred miles apart, in Wyoming and in South Dakota.
Celebrate Native American Heritage Month by learning more about the true story of another Native heroine, Amonute aka Pocahontas.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!