Monday, Jul. 08, 2002

Ultimate American History Mystery Woman

Her story has been told — and her reputation extolled — so often for so long that fact has blended into fiction, and fiction into legend. Mountains are named for her, and rivers and lakes. Children point proudly to her statues while reciting heroic prose about her epic adventure. Her supposed likeness has been memorialized in paintings, comic books, and on dinner plates. Tribes vie for her birthright. She appears in gold on the newest U.S. dollar coin.

Yet, scholars cannot even agree how to correctly spell or pronounce her name: Sa-CAH-gah-WEE-ah. SACK-ah-jah-wee-ah. Tsa-KAH-kah-wee-AH. Sah-KAH-joo-ah. She of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: that tribal, teenage mother who carried her infant son across half a continent — then back — 200 years ago. Translator of the Shoshoni language. Former slave of those Lewis termed "the Minnetaree Indians." "Snake" wife of the mixed-blood, Toussaint Charbonneau.

Ultimate American history Mystery Woman.

First-hand written information about her is as sparse and spare as a haiku. Tribal oral histories are far richer, but conflicting. In the best mythic tradition, these controversies surrounding Sacagawea and the lack of known documentation have only served to enhance her reputation. The holes in history are simply too intriguing to leave unfilled. The unknown has given birth to the possible — or more often, the impossible.

Such as actress Donna Reed's 1955 portrayal of Sacagawea in the hoary Hollywood classic, The Far Horizons. Witness: no infant son, no York (slave of Clark), only a vague reference to Charbonneau, but plenty of danger, flirtations with Lewis, and a tormented, undying love for Clark. Add to the mix that Sacagawea spoke elementary but flawless English to Lewis (Fred McMurray) and Clark (Charlton Heston) while guiding their way through unmistakable — and unmistakably incorrect — Grand Teton scenery, and you have what an entire generation of Americans thought they "knew" about the real person. For a later generation, Anna Waldo's 1980 Tolstoy-esque novel, Sacajawea, had the same effect — never mind that the plot took more turns than the Snake River. The pace was riveting, the story sexy and compelling. If fiction read better than reality, so be it. In the end, fiction became reality.

History books — even school books — prior to 1902 rarely even acknowledge Sacagawea. But in that year, Eva Emery Dye's saga, The Conquest, resurrected her name from the silent past. And 30 years later a University of Wyoming librarian, Grace Hebard, catapulted her into national prominence with the famous Sacajawea: Guide and Interpreter of Lewis and Clark. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Wyoming — indomitable advocate for women's rights since the 1800's — would give us a Super Woman prototype in tribal clothing, who manages to keep her day job as Madonna of the Trail. At any rate, thanks to Dye and Hebard, a modern star was born, and has been on a meteoric rise ever since.

But who was the historical person Sacagawea, without the hype? Keepers of Expedition journals spell her name myriad ways, each entry trying to capture phonetically the name by which her husband called her. Finally, they resorted to the easier and familiar "Janey," or simply wrote "squaw". When he named a river for her, Lewis christened it "Bird Woman's River", reflecting what he understood to be the meaning of her adopted "Minnetaree" (Hidatsa) name. There is no record of her birth name.

Most — but not all — tribal histories agree that she was born among what are today called the Lemhi Shoshone, about 1789, the same year George Washington was first inaugurated as President. She told Lewis and Clark that she was captured by the Hidatsa when she was about 11 years old, and made a slave to them. For several years, she lived near the Knife River's juncture with the Missouri, in what might best be termed a tribal metropolis. Here, there were many related villages and tribes, including the Mandan, the Minnetaree, and other Siouxian-speaking peoples.

When she was about 13 she was given her freedom and "made a relative", or adopted, into the Hidatsa tribe. She took the name by which history knows her: Sacagawea. By 14, she was already one of the wives of the 50-something Charbonneau, and heavily pregnant, when Lewis and Clark arrived on the scene in November of 1804. Up to that point, her life would have been considered typical for the era, in spite of her earlier abduction. But with the coming of the Expedition, all that changed.

Because of her birth among the Shoshone, or "Snake", people of the "Shining Mountains", and because she could speak the Shoshoni language to Charbonneau's English, Mandan, Hidatsa, and French, Sacagawea and her husband were hired to accompany the Corps of Discovery on its history-making journey. Both were listed as interpreters, whose skills would be pressed into service in acquiring "Snake" horses for crossing the mountains en route to the Pacific.

Official written record of her began. Thereafter, we follow her in the journals through her actions: a long and difficult childbirth hastened at last by ingesting the pulverized rattle of a snake. Scouting the landscape for familiar signs; "reading" discarded moccasins to determine what tribe was near. Falling into a coma and almost dying. Then, reuniting with her birth people only to discover her clan brother, Cameahwait, was the one Lewis and Clark called "chief". Successfully acquiring the crucial horses. Suffering deprivation, starvation, natural disasters, yet coming out whole.

Does this read like high drama? A classic Hero's Tale? Of course. And we Americans are doggedly sentimental about our heroes. We elevate the ordinary to the extraordinary as a means of marking indelibly that which is important to us as a people: courage, fortitude, sacrifices for the common good. We find it all in her. In lauding and embellishing her myth, we create that which we perceive to be the best in the human spirit.

Yet, what makes the Hero's Tale endure is the human-ness of the central character. Sacagawea rose above difficulty and travail to do what was needed in circumstances not of her choosing. She did it without fanfare. She honored her ancestors by living her life well, by making a difference. And she leaves us, today, a mirror of mystery in which we may see ourselves more clearly. That, in the end, may be her greatest legacy.