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Who Was Sacagawea?


In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson asked two men – Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – to mount an expedition to explore the uncharted vastness of America’s new western territory. Two hundred years ago this week (11/16), the team they led -- known as the Corps of Discovery – completed a 2000-kilometer journey from the central state of Missouri and arrived at the Pacific coast. The Corps included a diverse team of men and… one of the most celebrated women in American history: Sacagawea.

Her name has been bestowed on mountain peaks, streams, lakes and schools. Her portrait – as imagined by an artist – is on the U.S. dollar coin: the face of a Native American woman in her teens, carrying an infant in a blanket slung on her back. It is how she would have looked in April 1805, when she set out with her husband and the other members of the Corps of Discovery. Hired as an interpreter, Sacagawea ended up playing another important role, as well.

Amy Mossett, a member of the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of North Dakota, has spent most of her life studying Sacagawea and the past 17 years interpreting her life. She says the Corps of Discovery encountered a number of tribes who had never seen a white man before, and to them Sacagawea was a symbol of peace and friendship.

“Lewis and Clark recorded in their journals a number of times that ‘the presence of this Indian woman reconciles to all of these tribes that we are encountering that we are not a war party, that we are in fact on a peaceful mission.’ I think looking out and seeing all of these American soldiers arriving in their villages with guns -- that must have been quite a frightening sight,” Ms. Mossett says. “But then, all of sudden you see this Indian woman and her baby traveling quite freely and voluntarily with these men – obviously not a hostage – and you can see how that would ease the tension.”

Sacagawea was born a Shoshone Indian, but was kidnapped in 1800 by a war party and was adopted by the Hidatsa when she was about 13. They are the ones who gave her her name, which means “Bird Woman,” a common name among Native Americans, according to Ms. Mossett.

According to interviews conducted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs with Hidatsa leaders in 1900, Sacagawea herself was not held in higher esteem than any other woman of the tribe.

But as Amy Mossett points out, in 1805, when Sacagawea joined the Corps of Discovery, Hidatsa women in general were held in higher esteem than white women. ”Two hundred years ago American women had no rights whatsoever. They didn’t even own their shoes,” Ms. Mossett says. “But if you look back at our villages here on the Northern Plains, at the same time our women owned gardens. Our women owned the products that came from the villages. Our women owned the homes. Those gigantic earth lodges that we lived in, that housed our families, they were owned by the women.”

But even Hidatsa women were not free to choose their husbands. Sacagawea was married to a French trader, Toussaint Charbonneau. Two months before the Corps of Discovery headed west, she gave birth to a son – Jean Baptiste – who was the youngest member of the party.

Most historians believe Sacagawea died in December 1812, at the age of 24 -- six years after returning from the west with the Lewis and Clark expedition. Amy Mossett says, regrettably, she left no record of her impressions of that journey.

“This was a woman who saw grizzly bears and a gigantic whale on the Pacific Ocean that had been beached. This is a woman who met Indian women from other cultures all the way out to the Pacific Ocean and back,” Ms. Mossett notes. “She must have had an incredible collection of stories about her journey out to the west. And no one recorded or documented what she saw, how she felt about it, or how that experience changed her.”

We can only imagine what Sacagawea’s version of the journey would have been. But Amy Mossett says the bicentennial commemoration of the Lewis and Clark expedition has allowed contemporary Native Americans to present their interpretations of the event.

"Thomas Jefferson directed Lewis and Clark to go out and map this land. And he wanted them to find that one best land and water route for the purpose of trade and commerce. He also wanted this land to be farmed. And you know, we were already doing that, long before Thomas Jefferson was born,” Ms. Mossett says. “We had already charted this land. We had already settled this land. We had already farmed this land. We were already engaged in international trade. That wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s vision. That was our way of life.”

Amy Mossett has been participating in events to mark the Lewis and Clark bicentennial since January 2003, when she was a speaker at the commencement ceremonies at Thomas Jefferson’s home in Virginia. Next August, a four-day event in New Town, North Dakota, not far from the Hidatsa village where Sacagawea lived, will focus on the woman who became the most famous member of the Corps of Discovery.

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