Women in History: Sacajawea

Most of us know Sacajawea as the courageous woman who helped Meriwether Lewis and William Clark explore America beyond its western border. We laud her for helping them negotiate with Native American tribes for permission to cross their lands and of course we all know the image of her traveling with a newborn. Her entire narrative is built around being helpful when in reality she had very little choice.

I cannot definitively declare that Sacajawea did not like traveling with Lewis and Clark because we have nothing written by her. She was never given a chance for her voice to be heard and her opinion was not considered important. Although she may have grown to enjoy the time, I will definitively declare that she didn’t choose this path and it was much more difficult than we have ever been asked to consider.

At a young age Sacajawea was a prisoner of a rival Native tribe. At around 13, she was either won in a gambling game or kidnapped by Toussaint Charbonneau. We often read about this relationship as a marriage but using that word automatically makes it sound like she had a choice. She was a slave – a prisoner. They were most likely not legally married but it did not matter. She was a Native American woman which meant she was so much lower than her white counterparts. Those around her did not care about her feelings and she was considered property.

This distinction matters because history has never appropriately analyzed the relationship between Sacajawea and Charbonneau. Her “marriage” to Charbonneau has never interested historians (mostly male) because it seemed to have nothing to do with her accomplishments on the trail, which is where historians have failed again.

Despite, being a prisoner in a “marriage” that subjected her to habitual rape and known physical abuse (so much abuse that it was written about in the journals of Lewis and Clark) she worked hard and did everything she could to help Lewis and Clark be successful. I think that is very admirable. She could have attempted escape. She could have killed herself. She could have attempted to or succeeded in killing the others on the trip. But she didn’t. She persevered and helped the two men succeed in their mission.

In 1804 or 1805, Lewis and Clark hired her husband, Charbonneau to accompany them on the trip. He was a known frontiersman as well as a brute, murderer, and generally did not have an agreeable reputation but in the golden age of “boys will be boys” his behavior did not matter and he was hired.

Sacajawea, his “wife”, had no choice – she would be going on the trip as well. She wasn’t hired and probably wasn’t even paid. Any money that may have been paid for her role would have gone to her husband, not her. Sacajawea was going to be expected to keep up, do her part to keep the expedition moving, and not complain.

Sacajawea gave birth to her son on February 11, 1805. The expedition left in April. Putting this into perspective, Sacajawea, a brand new mother, had a two month old baby to carry with her at all times. Ignoring the needs of a newborn, the needs of a new mother are great as well. Breastfeeding takes time and requires a certain number of calories to sustain a constant milk supply and women dry up all the time and without notice. Forcing her to go on a trip with a newborn was risky to the health of the mother and child but in an era where roughly 50% of women died from childbirth it isn’t surprising that a group of men never took her life into account.

Despite the persistent physical abuse, despite the rape, despite the demands of a newborn, Sacajawea excelled. She helped rescue supplies after an accident her husband caused. She was able to keep up with the pace and physical demands of the trip. She traded her very few personal items in order to gain passage in rival Native lands. Lewis and Clark developed a real affinity for her (which is probably why they wrote about the abuse she suffered. Although brief, this inclusion indicates to me a regret for her situation.) After the trip, Sacajawea died, probably from childbirth fever after the birth of her second child. William Clark adopted both of her children.

How We Write About Her

The following is a passage from Wikipedia about Sacajawea (please note, they spell her name with g instead of j – I have chosen j.)

“While living among the Hidatsa people, Charbonneau purchased or won a Shoshone girl: Sacagawea (Bird Woman) from the Hidatsa. The Hidatsa had captured Sacagawea on one of their annual raiding and hunting parties to the west. It is possible that Sacagawea had little choice in the matter, or that she chose it because it was preferable to her previous position. Native women hardly felt forced into marriage as most marriages to French traders were beneficial. Gender imbalance was a problem among native tribes as men would often lose their lives in war. Another benefit was the access to goods native women otherwise may not have been able to afford.” – as written on Wikipedia’s article about Toussaint Charbonneau on December 14, 2018.

Even if living with Charbonneau was preferable to living as a captive with a rival Native tribe, let us be absolutely clear – Sacajawea had NO choice in the matter. No one asked her what she thought or what she wanted and more importantly, no one cared. But for most of human history, there is a perception that women enjoy being recused. Women may make the best of bad situations but that certainly doesn’t mean they like it.

“Native women hardly felt forced into marriage as most marriages to French traders were beneficial.”

This may be the most offensive sentence I have read regarding women in history. Women who are forced into marriage have always felt and will always feel forced into marriage regardless of their skin color or ethnicity. Native women did not rejoice when they discovered they were “married” to white men the same way they did not rejoice when they discovered they were “married” to any man. They most often accepted their fate as most women in history have.

This also perpetuates the idea that Native Americans were cruel, abusive people. It perpetuates the savages ideal that we have been conditioned to accept all these years later. Native American tribes were no more cruel than their European counterparts and did not treat their women with any more contempt and abuse than European men did.

“Gender imbalance was a problem among native tribes as men would often lose their lives in war. Another benefit was the access to goods native women otherwise may not have been able to afford.”

Gender imbalance was true and still is true everywhere and I can guarantee you that no Native American woman thought to herself, “I would rather marry a Frenchman than a man from my own tribe because he might lose his life in war.” This particular passage is disturbing because it proves our continuing discrimination against Native people. Native American women had pride in their civilizations just like any woman in any civilization today has. Native American women would not have turned their backs on their entire way of life because they had fear of losing their spouses (or brothers or fathers). They would have supported their warriors and made the sacrifices necessary to help ensure victory.

“Another benefit was the access to goods native women otherwise may not have been able to afford.”

There are more important things in life than pretty dresses and makeup. Women have many interests and would not give them up for such frivolous things. To believe that a woman would trade her life as she knows it for a beautiful silk gown is to believe that women have no rational thought.

The known history of Sacajawea may be short but it is entirely unfair to her as a human. Historians have dehumanized her and have made us believe a false narrative when the real story about the perils of her journey make her accomplishments more impressive. The fact that she is a Native American woman also jeopardizes her value as Americans have a long history of ignoring and dehumanizing the stories of Native Americans.

Although this article is not a complete biography of Sacajawea, which she deserves, I do hope, you walk away thinking about how we write about her and other women. #realwomenshistory


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