Remember Sacagawea

Apr 10, 2017

Detail of "Lewis & Clark at Three Forks", mural in lobby of Montana House of Representatives

What happened to her when she was a kid wasn't all that unusual among nomadic, war-faring Great Plains tribes. When her people--the Shoshones--started into a bloody fight with another--the Hidatsas--she got herself kidnapped, lost her home, then got another she surely hadn’t asked for, and was eventually--sad but true--sold into slavery. At the time, she was only ten years old. 

All of that sounds awful today, and it was then. On the other hand, it wasn't unusual. What was unusual was those odd white men coming up the river in weird-looking boats, a whole number of them dressed in totally ridiculous blue uniforms. What she saw—what they all did--was the party of Lewis and Clark, who'd left from the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers and struggled upstream any way they could, bound for nobody knew exactly where--to find, those Native people must have figured, whatever it was they could find at the end of the river, like the end of the rainbow. They were sickly-looking people too--so pale. 

She got herself won in a card game not long before, both she and her friend Otter Woman, when a French-Canadian trapper, who was hardly a prize, won both of them with a less than sterling poker hand. Otter Woman and Sacajawea got wed to the trapper, who got Sacajawea with child, this 16-year-old girl hundreds of miles from home. 

So when Lewis and Clark showed up and signed that trapper to do some scouting for them--they were up in what would be North Dakota at the time--Sacajawea was plump-as-a-plum pregnant. That baby of hers—of theirs--was born while the whole party hibernated at Fort Mandan through an icebox of a winter. 

Listen to this: it turns out that for the Corps of Discovery, this pregnant Shoshone teenager wasn't excess baggage at all, but a bona fide freebee. Sacajawea, 16 years old, just happened to know her way around the neighborhood where the Missouri elbowed west into Montana. It was her world they were entering. What's more, she knew the language. What a deal she was. 

One could argue (although white people might find it hard to do) that without this girl, this kid, this teenage, unmarried mom, this Indian(!), Lewis and Clark and their much bally-hooed Corps of Discovery would never have made it to Oregon.

Still, what Lewis and Clark did was quite a story, finding their way from a hamlet called St. Louis, all the way to the Oregon coast, to the Pacific Ocean, then going all the way back again in just a couple of years. 

Right here where we live they discovered the first huge herds of buffalo, right here in the neighborhood. Did I say “discovered”? Sure. Tell that the Yankton Sioux. To say those men "discovered" anything of the Louisiana Purchase is inarguably racist.

Anyway, as remarkable an enterprise as the Corps of Discovery was, and it was--they lost only one of the company, and that one right here on a hill. But the truth is they would not have pulled it off without Sacajawea, that little Shoshone girl with the tiny baby, a young woman who died just a few years later, in 1812, of some fever no one really took the trouble to diagnose.

Tomorrow, people say, the fourth of April, was her birthday, Sacajawea, who led Lewis and Clark through a wilderness they’d never seen and even spoke for them when they needed someone to a language they had no ear for. It’s her birthday, Sacajawea’s birthday, tomorrow—Sacajawea, dare I say "the American girl," Sacajawea? 

If justice ruled in this country, honestly, tomorrow the whole nation would celebrate.