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Chapter 1

Seeking Sacagawea


Personally, I would like to ask, what is all of this fuss about? She cannot be buried in other places. She is here on the hill in the cemetery. She can only be buried in one place. . . . Fraud is not with the Indians in matters of this kind. They do not put up a story just to have it startling and out-of-place.

James McAdam, to Grace Raymond Hebard through interpreter James E. Compton, Fort Washakie, July 21, 1929

Some of our people say she was the same woman, others say she was not.

Statement of Mrs. Weidemann, Elbowwoods, N.D., February 3, 1925, to Charles Eastman, in Sioux

So many women were there that she might have been there and not noticed, but there were women, many of them.

Hebe-chee-chee, to Grace Raymond Hebard through interpreter James E. Compton, Fort Washakie, July 22, 1929

Se car ja we au Dead.

William Clark, Cashbook for 1825-1828


Before there was a West there, Native American women lived in and traversed and transformed the terrain that would, in time, become the West. But the arrival of the West meant that most of those women would be dislodged and erased, relegated to the status of missing persons. When you go looking for missing persons, you may not find them, but you are bound to find out a lot of other things. That was what happened when I went looking for the Shoshone woman we know today as Sacagawea.

It seems odd to imagine this most famous Indian woman among the "missing." Pocahontas aside, no one has been more in evidence as a representative of indigenous women's history than Sacagawea, the Native American woman who went west with Lewis and Clark.1 Sacagawea has, of course, been an emblem of Indian womanhood for audiences as diverse as turn-of-the-century white women's rights activists and fans of western movies. An image of her appears on the newest U.S. dollar coin. There is no question that she has been represented often and in varied media, from books to sculpture to musical theater.2

For someone about whom so much has been said, written, painted, and even sung in years long since her death, some fairly basic pieces of Sacagawea's story are missing. We don't know where or when she was born, and we're not sure where or when she died. We can't say for certain how many children she had; we don't even really know how to say or spell or translate her name. Even this highly celebrated indigenous woman has left a surprisingly faint trail.

But trails appear faint either because they are neglected, even erased, or because those who try to follow them don't know how to read the signs, or because the signs point in different directions. Women's traces have often faded through neglect, and sometimes been deliberately obscured, obliterated, or falsified. Women have added to the difficulty of the search by insisting, all too often and sometimes for good reasons, on covering their tracks. Tracing indigenous women in the nineteenth century means, moreover, coping with white writers' racial and gender stereotyping, cultural blindnesses, and desired to imagine the country they desire not as peopled but as empty. Thus pursuing the search means thinking hard about how to read the signs.3

My purpose in seeking Sacagawea was not to write a definitive biography of her, or even to try to analyze everything that has been said or written about her.4 I wanted first to think about what we might learn by taking seriously the idea that women move through space as well as time. I also wanted to examine the ways in which race—more a potent construct of the human imagination than a biological reality in this world of interethnic interaction—affected women's movements and their legacies. I knew that even if I didn't find the historical woman Sacagawea and prove able to explain precisely where and when and how she had been, I might still learn something about some indigenous women. I would surely learn something about the difficulty and the promise of tracing the lives of women who move around.

Searching for Sacagawea has shown me ways in which Native women's movements and their knowledgeable actions in the early nineteenth century eluded, delimited, created, and transformed the West, at a time when "West" meant little more than the wish, the intent, and the action of extending American domination into a place not everyone agreed should be understood as a part of the United States.5 This West was made real, in no small degree, through the act of writing things down. Where the power of the written word faded, so too did the West itself.

The more I looked for Sacagawea, this most written-about Indian woman, the more I tried to find the historical person divested of her burden of embodying stereotype and legend, the more I saw shadows of other women who led lives distant from the literary. Her story, the one that leaked into the chronicles of American expansion, seemed to reveal many women, moving around, mastering a host of languages and skills, turning the terrain they traversed into a densely populated, confusing place. Following her often faint, sometimes invisible trail, a trail that often crossed European Americans' tracks but as often led away from them, I found a profusion of women's footprints, leading in many directions. I finally had to ask: Was she one woman, or several, or even many?

Where previous seekers had tried to create a consistent individual woman's biography, I saw overlapping, often irreconcilable stories of a host of women. As Plains Indian women came into focus, the more "the West" receded. Yet the West did not disappear entirely from view. Just as Native women's thoughts and movements revealed both a world before the West and the limits of American authority, so too did such women take part in erecting the West.

I began, as anyone who has gone looking for Sacagawea does, with the testimony of the men of the Corps of Discovery, the transient band of soldiers and civilians sent by President Thomas Jefferson of the United States to explore a large piece of North American territory that the U.S. had recently bought but that it by no means controlled. She was perhaps fourteen, or maybe seventeen, when the men of this expedition first laid eyes on her; as Rocky Mountain frontiersman Charles William Bocker would later remark, testifying to white men's interpretive handicaps, "It is difficult to tell an Indian girl's age or a squaw's age."6 Several men of the corps kept journals in an effort to fix as precisely as possible their own whereabouts and activities on particular dates. She might well have been among the Indians who greeted Lewis and Clark as they arrived at the Mandan-Hidatsa villages, not far from where the Knife River joins the Missouri in present-day North Dakota, near the place she lived with her French husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, and his other young Shoshone wife, said by some to have been named Otter Woman.7 But whether or not Sacagawea had seen the men of the expedition before, their written journals suggest that she came to their attention on November 11, 1804.8 On that day, as on most to follow, the Americans of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery would refer to her not by name but according to the conventions of race and sex, in this case as one of "two squars of the Rock mountains, purchased from the Indians by a frenchmen."9

The expedition had established itself in winter quarters in a fort adjacent to the Mandan-Hidatsa villages. Charbonneau, who had lived and worked in Indian country for at least a decade, was looking for employment. He hoped to use his claim to fluency in Hidatsa, his knowledge of a more widely understood sign language, and his experience trapping and trading among indigenous people to hire on as an interpreter with the American expedition commanded by Captains Lewis and Clark. After some negotiation, Charbonneau signed on with the Corps of Discovery and moved with his wives into the Americans' fort.

For nearly the next two years, written records testify to where Sacagawea was and what she was doing. She traveled westward with the expedition to the Pacific Ocean, and back as far as the Mandan villages. But no one, herself included, could have known in November 1804 what her presence would come to mean to Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery, or to later generations. So it is perhaps not surprising that no one bothered to write down her name.

Even had they done so, Lewis and Clark and the others who kept journals were such haphazard spellers that on the few occasions when they later tried to render her name into English their representations were more remarkable for variety than for clarity. In the years since, a fierce battle has raged about the proper meaning, pronunciation, and spelling of that name: Tsi-ki-ka-wi-as (Hidatsa, "Bird Woman"); Sakakawea (Anglicized Hidatsa); Sah ca gah we ah (Clark's sometime usage); Sa cah gar we a (Lewis's attempt); Sacajawea (Nicholas Biddle's spelling, based on advice from Corps of Discovery member George Shannon, a rendering from the Shoshone meaning "Canoe Launcher").10 Clark had such trouble wrapping his tongue around her name that he sometimes called her, simply, "Janey."11

Generations of American schoolchildren learned to know her as "Sacajawea, Guide of the Lewis and Clark Expedition." Each time I refer to her here as "Sacagawea," I rub against my own ingrained habit. The woman I learned to call Sacajawea, and now struggle to call Sacagawea, did not read or write, and did not pronounce her own name with English inflections. Indigenous women's names often reflect clan affiliation, but no scholar has suggested that the name Sacagawea was either a Shoshone or Hidatsa clan name. Shoshone naming practices reflect people's experiences and accomplishments more often than their clan associations. Sacagawea never attained familial status among the matrilineal Hidatsas; she was captured young, and never adopted by the Hidatsas before being sold, or lost, to Charbonneau.12 Later Hidatsas, as we shall see, insisted that she had never been their captive at all.

In the years after she parted from the Corps of Discovery, according to Shoshone, Comanche, and white testimony, she went by a number of different names, also in different languages. She had been known in Comanche as Pohe-nive, or Grass Woman; Nyah-Suqite, meaning "The Flirt"; Wadze-Wipe, or Lost Woman; and Porivo, or Chief. And then in Shoshone, she was known as Yanb-he-be-jo, or the Old Comanche Woman; and in English, as "Bazil's Mother."13 If the power to specify one's own name is one of the ways we measure individuality and freedom, the capacity of nations and languages to assign people definitive names is a measure of the power of states, villages, and kin groups—although in practice, the names of individuals and of groups of people often change as life goes on and people move around (consider, for example, the fact that American women have conventionally been expected to change their names after marriage). The woman I am calling Sacagawea may well have been called, and have called herself, a number of names. That English-speaking representatives of the United States have never been able to determine, finally, how her name should be pronounced or spelled or translated, let alone whether this assortment of names refers to one person, demonstrates the incompleteness of American domination of this woman, people like her, and the terrain they traversed. Early-twentieth-century Shoshones were careful to explain to interviewers that the woman they knew as Porivo was called Sacajawea by whites.14 I settle for an imperfect and imposed representation of her name—Sacagawea—to acknowledge that there is much we will never know about her, or many others whose impact on history was no more visible, and no less substantive, than the influence of air upon lungs.

If in 1804 she was called by the Hidatsa name Sakakawea, as many have argued, it was not the first name she had known. She had, after all, been born Shoshone, probably somewhere in what would become the state of Idaho. At the age of nine or ten or eleven or twelve, camped with her band at the Three Forks of the Missouri River in what is now Montana, she endured a calamity that would change her life forever. As Meriwether Lewis understood the story, probably partly through Charbonneau's translation, she and other children and women of her Lemhi Shoshone band were captured by Minnetarees (identified in the 1920s as Gros Ventres, and more generically designated as Hidatsas) and taken, on foot or on horseback, hundreds of miles east to the Missouri River villages. There, she may have spent the next four or five or six years of her life. She learned a new language, new skills and customs, as a captive slave. Barely into her teens, she acquired the designation of "wife of" Charbonneau (who himself went by several names in different languages) when he either bought her or won her in a gambling game.15