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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


August 24, 2002 - Issue 68


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In North Dakota, Spell her Name 'Sakakawea'

by Dorreen Yellow Bird Grand Forks Herald
Sakakawea StatueThe Three Affiliated Tribes in New Town, N.D., are considering changing the spelling of Sakakawea to Sacagawea, according to The Associated Press.

"The Indian woman," as explorer William Clark most often called her, was a guide for the (Meriwether) Lewis and Clark journey to the Pacific Northwest when she was about 16.

In my view, the Sakakawea spelling shouldn't be changed in North Dakota.

To change Sakakawea to Sacagawea would be like trying to unravel a tangled spool of thin, white thread while paddling a canoe: It would be difficult and next to impossible without a headfirst fall in the Missouri River.

While I appreciate the view of Amy Mossett, the tribe's tourism director, about changing the name, what she is proposing may add to the confusion. Mossett is right, though; there is a problem in "translating oral Indian language into the English alphabet."

We've lost culture, and even our way of thinking, in those changes. But then, any kind of translation from one language to another is difficult, at best. When the foreign language of English came to this country, it quickly became the dominant language as more speakers poured into Indian country. Some American Indian languages disappeared forever.

The "Sacagawea" spelling, which is closer to the Lemhi Shoshone spelling of Sacajawea, may imply a stand on the issue of whether the woman in question was Hidatsa or Lemhi Shoshone. Hidatsa speakers at the Three Affiliated Tribes, said "Sakaka" means bird and "Wea" means woman in Hidatsa. But in the Shoshone language, "Sacajawea" means Carrying Burden, according to her descendents. An August issue of the Sho-Ban News of Fort Hall, Idaho, carries an article from the descendents on this issue.

The Hidatsa, including some elders, are staunch in their belief that, indeed, Sakakawea was Hidatsa. She, they claim, was stolen from the Hidatsa. The Hidatsa oral story is something like this: Sakakawea was captured by the Shoshone and taken to their camp. Later, Sakakawea's Shoshone grandmother felt the girl's sadness and decided to return her to the Hidatsa. The grandmother prepared the young girl for a trip back to the Hidatsa (then called Minnetarees).

This very young Sakakawea was befriended by a wolf that saved her from starvation. After further adventures, she reached the Hidatsa village, and her father is there waiting for her. It is a good story, and the Three Affiliated Tribes are considering a movie based on it.

The claims that Sakakawea is Shoshone are more realistic if you believe the accounts in the Lewis and Clark journals. I have not memorized the journals, nor am I as good as some of my friends who can quote sections of them. But two parts in the journals are convincing to me: First, where Clark says, "Our present camp is precisely on the spot that the Snake Indians (Shoshone) were encamped at the time the Minnetarees of Knife River first came in sight of them. . . . The Minnetarees pursued, attacked them, killed four men, four women, a number of boys, and made prisoners of all the females and four boys. Sacagawea, our Indian woman, was one of the female prisoners taken at that time. . . ."

And second, where the journals recall the Lemhi Shoshone meeting with Sakakawea for the first time after her capture by the Hidatsa. When the Lewis and Clark group came upon the Shoshone, Sakakawea ran to the Indians, the journals report. She called one of the horseback riders "brother" and seemed to know the members of the Shoshone group. Since Clark certainly would be an objective view in this debate, I agree with those at the Three Affiliated Tribes who believe she was Lemhi Shoshone.

Yet this young woman spent many years with the Hidatsa. She formed some good relationships with them. It seems she could have left the Hidatsa when the Corps of Discovery met and lived with the Shoshone during their travel to and from the Pacific, but she didn't. She made Knife River in what later became North Dakota her home with her husband, Charbonneau.

So, she actually had two homes, the Lemhi Shoshone of Fort Hall and the Hidatsa.

It seems fitting to me then she is called by two names: Sakakawea, Bird Woman of the Hidatsa, and Sacajawea, Carrying Burden, as her Shoshone descendants call her. Sakakawea was also the first spelling used for her identification in North Dakota, and we have a lake, buildings and other items named after her.

It is a tribute to this young woman whose fame has grown tremendously since her days with the Corps of Discovery. It is perhaps that reason that those who had a part in her life want to give her praise. They are honored that she was from their tribe or family.

She probably would be pleased that there are so many people who want to identify with her. So, let both of her "families," the Lemhi Shoshone and the Hidatsa, give her honor by using her name. Keep the spelling as is. Don't add to the confusion.

Yellow Bird writes columns. Reach her at 780-1228, (800) 477-6572, extension 228, or

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