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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


October 18, 2003 - Issue 98


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Hidatsa Member Refines True Story of Sacagawea

by Pip Hanson - St. Paul Pioneer Press
credits: photo: Amy Mossett, who is Mandan and Hidatsa tells stories related to Sakakawea and the life ways of the Mandan and Hidatsa, Photo taken at Fort Union North Dakota

Amy Mossett, who is Mandan and Hidatsa tells stories related to Sakakawea and the life ways of the Mandan and Hidatsa, Photo taken at Fort Union North DakotaSacagawea, the American Indian interpreter for Lewis and Clark's expedition, has more statues in her honor than any other woman in American history.

Yet one of the most famous women in American history is also one of the most mysterious; even the date of her death is disputed, with opinions differing by as much as 70 years.

Amy Mossett, a member of the Hidatsa and Mandan tribes of North Dakota, believes Sacagawea's story has endured in part because of the mystery surrounding her. For the past 15 years, Mossett has studied her life and her contribution to the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Mossett recently worked as an adviser for the producers of the Science Museum's Omnitheater feature "Lewis and Clark: The Great Journey West." The film, which opens Friday, follows the explorers on their journey through the American wilderness. "Native Waters: Sharing the Source," an exhibit about the Missouri River and its significance to the Indian nations who live in the Missouri River Basin, will open the same day.

Mossett, in whose Hidatsa tribe Sacagawea lived, has been interested in Sacagawea since she was young. As a child, she heard stories about Sacagawea but felt that history classes ignored her contribution.

"They would always talk about the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Indian woman who went with them," she said. "I have always wanted her story to be told from our perspective."

It is commonly believed that at age 12, Sacagawea was captured in a raid by the Hidatsa and taken from her Shoshone tribe. Traumatic though this must have been, she learned to speak Hidatsa in addition to her native Shoshone, which would later make her a vital member of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery.

During the time she lived with the Hidatsa, Sacagawea was married to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur-trader who spoke Hidatsa. Although many accounts of Sacagawea's life compare her marriage to slavery, Mossett denied this comparison.

Sacagawea was not sold into slavery or marriage, said Mossett, nor were other women, as Lewis had recorded in his journal. "The man gave gifts to a woman's father; he needed to prove he was resourceful. When those kinds of traditions were observed by Lewis, he misinterpreted them."

Lewis and Clark met Sacagawea and her husband while spending the winter of 1804-05 near her Hidatsa village. They hired the couple as interpreters in a rather circuitous system — she translated Shoshone conversations into Hidatsa for Charbonneau to translate into French, which a captain of the Corps of Discovery would then translate into English for Lewis and Clark.

"Contrary to what most people think," said Mossett, "she was an interpreter, not a guide." The expedition was to travel through Shoshone country, where they would need to buy horses. Sacagawea was the only person they had found who could speak the language of the Shoshone.

But she was useful in other ways, too. When the expedition's supplies ran low, she knew which plants were edible and could find caches of nuts hidden by animals.

Also, having given birth to a baby boy barely two months before the expedition started, Sacagawea was a white flag to other Indians they encountered along the route. "The sight of this Indian woman," Clark wrote in his journal on Oct. 19, 1805, "confirmed those people of our friendly intentions, as no woman ever accompanies a war party of Indians in this quarter."

The journey down the Missouri was a difficult one, even for the adult men of the Corps; it is astonishing that Sacagawea was able to make the journey as a teenager carrying a newborn child. Even with the "little dancing boy," whom Clark had taken to calling "Pompy," she proved herself at times more capable than the rest.

When her husband, poor at steering a boat and unable to swim, capsized a pirogue and floundered to shore in a panic, Sacagawea calmly went about recovering supplies, her baby still on her back. She also fished out the journals of the expedition, which are now the main sources of information about her life.

"The Indian woman," wrote Lewis on May 16, 1805, "to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution with any person on board at the time of the accident, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard."

"I have a deep respect for Sacagawea," said Mossett, who feels a connection to Sacagawea because her ancestors knew her. "I want her story to be told in a more historically accurate manner."

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