Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
August 26, 2000 - Issue 17

What She Was Called Not as Important as Who She Was
by Dorreen Yellowbird columnist Grand Forks Herald

You say to(mah)to and I say tom(ay)to. You say Sajacawea and I say Sakakawea.

Just what are the correct pronunciation and spelling of this famous historic figure’s name and who is she — really?

I, meaning those back home and some the rest of the world too, are stirring this cauldron of questions about this historic figure. But these questions can be blamed on the celebration of the anniversary of the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s expedition almost 200 years ago. This celebration prompted the new dollar gold coin with Sakakawea’s face on one side. Incidentally, this is first ever in our history that the federal government saw fit to put a native woman on a coin.

There isn’t a clear answer which is correct — Sakakawea or Sacajawea. Sakakaweais Bird Woman in Hidatsas and Sacajawea is Boat Launcher in Shoshone. We are also trying to find out who she is and where she came from. That will tell us which is the most correct pronunciation. Much of what we know about this famous guide is from the journals of Lewis and Clark and the oral history of both the Hidatsa and Shoshone. These oral and written documents walk hand-in-hand sometimes and sometimes they won’t even speak to each other. I am thinking that the only way we can truly find the answer to Sakakawea’s ancestor is through DNA testing of the bodies in the several graves identified as Sakakawea or Sajacawea. The stickler is finding someone who is truly her ancestor for the DNA match.

As I researched and interviewed people on different aspect of Sakakawea for a story, it came to me that the grandmas — the elders — probably would have a reaction quiet different. I had to chuckle out loud when I thought about “the grandmas,” scarves around their heads, sitting primly with their cotton dresses that hang to their calves, their buckskin moccasins wrapped high around their legs. I say chuckle because I just hear them saying “myyyyyy” drawing that last part that indicated amazement at our doings. The men, of course, who would be sitting on the opposite side of the room, would cluck their tongues and shake their heads. You see digging up the bones of the dead, even if it isn’t literal, is disturbing their spirit, they would say. It is like looking under the dress of a respected elder while she is praying. Opps, I remembering thinking, how awfully, when I heard that analogy. But then when the grandmas, were teaching or scolding, they were always very pointed. When they looked you straight in the eye, their look could cause melt down.

The problem with providing a definite answer to questions like who she is and what is the correct spelling of her name, means that someone stretched the truth somewhere down the road. Who do we call liars? But then history writing is like that because it can be a winding, illusive and a complicated process that doesn’t always tell the truth — even if it is in the journal of a creditable writer. The Indigenous people of this country have found that to be true.

One of the elders who was helping with the research on the Sahnish history, told us, as we searched for some piece of evidence, “When I die one of the first things, I am going to ask White Shield or Son of Star (some respected ancestor) is . . . ?” There were questions from our past that we will never know the true answer. That led, of course, to an interesting discussion of the hereafter. But I guess, what that question led us to believe, is there are some questions that will be answered only when we meet those ancestors in the next life.

Perhaps just an acceptance of other view points is good, but probably more important is the fact Sakakawea was one of the first Indigenous women who was recognized for her good deeds. Let that be known. Also that the Indigenous nations of this country had women who were brave beyond the most famous; they have ceremonies and medicines just as powerful as the men, but because the people who were the recorder our history were men, they sometimes overlooked the women.

So if anything can be said of Sakakawea, it might be don’t get lost in who she was or what she was called. Just remember that she was just one of many brave and powerful Indigenous women whose history will probably remain a mystery.

Yellow Bird’s e-mail address is or she can be reached at (701) 780-1228.

Part of the difficulty that allowed the debate to go on over Sacagawea is the many names she had during her lifetime, because of her moving about the country from tribe to tribe, and her Indian heritage and the tradition of Indian names. The difficulty people had in pronouncing and spelling her name contributed to the confusion surrounding the date of her death. Throughout the journals, Lewis and Clark spelled Sacagawea’s name with “g,” taking her name to mean “bird woman” in Shoshone. But the woman who claimed to be Sacagawea spelled her name “Sacajawea” which means “boat launcher.”

Shoshone or Comanche Name

English Translation


Bird Woman


Boat Woman


Lost Woman


Guide of White River Men


Grass Maiden


Went A Long Way


The Old Comanche Woman

Lewis and Clark spelled Sacagawea's names inconsistently. Some of their spellings and references: Sah-kah-gar-we-a, Sah-ca-gee-we-ah, Sah-car-gar-weah, Sacarjawea, and Sacajawea. She was referred to as the Indian squar, wife of Charbonneau, the Indian woman, Janey.



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