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What's in a name?
Sometimes a lot
As a boy I knew her as the Bird Woman. Her statue graces Washington Park in Portland, not far from where my grandmother lived. My grandmother loved the statue and the story behind it, and she told the story to me.
Sacajawea, as she was then commonly called, was a key figure in the success of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had been dispatched by Thomas Jefferson to explore the newly purchased Louisiana territory and to push on to the Pacific Ocean. Leaving St Louis in the spring of 1804, they ascended the Missouri River to what is now North Dakota. They wintered there, in the country of the Mandan and Hidatsa Indians.
The maps they carried were merely notional, and they knew they needed guides. They learned that a French fur trapper named Charbonneau was married to a woman from the Shoshone tribe, whose lands lay hundreds of miles to the west, athwart the route Lewis and Clark expected to traverse. They enlisted the services of the couple, who joined the expedition when it set out again in the spring of 1805.
Sacajawea had crossed the region the expedition now traveled through, but in the reverse direction. As a girl she had been abducted by Hidatsa raiders and carried away to the east. In time she was sold to Charbonneau for a wife. Whether she considered this an improvement in her condition is lost to history, but she seemed to Lewis and Clark to be reasonably content with her husband. She was pregnant with Charbonneau’s child.
In any event, her familiarity with the landmarks the expedition passed gave them confidence they were going in the right direction. "The Indian woman recognized the point of a high plain to our right, which she informed us was not very distant from the summer retreat of her nation on a river beyond the mountains which runs to the west," Lewis recorded in his journal.
And as they neared the land of Sacajawea's birth and girlhood, which she had expected never to see again, the growing excitement she felt was contagious.
Meanwhile she served as a visible sign to the Indians the expedition encountered that the Americans were coming in peace. Indians did not take their women to war, and they appear to have assumed that white people did not either. The arrival of her son, whom she carried on her back, added to the nonthreatening demeanor of the expedition.
A crucial moment came amid a difficult crossing of the Rocky Mountains. The Americans needed food and horses, without which they could not continue. The Indians in this vicinity were standoffish, evidently reluctant to help. But then Sacajawea recognized her long lost brother, Cameahwait, now a leading man among the Shoshones. "She instantly jumped up and ran and embraced him, throwing over him her blanket and weeping profusely," Lewis recorded.
The timing could not have been better. The expedition got what it needed, and proceeded west down the Snake and Columbia Rivers, arriving at the Pacific just before the worst of winter set in.
Sacajawea never saw the hilltop where her statue would be raised in Washington Park. That part of Portland is several miles south of the Columbia River. But she became an icon for early residents of the city, with whom my grandmother identified. My grandmother used to say that her mother had come west in a covered wagon. We in the family could never tell if this was factually true, but the idea obviously appealed to my grandmother, who adopted Sacajawea as a kind of spiritual guide for her mother's wagon on the way west.
It's just as well that my grandmother died before the debate over Sacajawea's name grew hot. The two tribes with which Sacajawea was associated both laid claim to her. The Hidatsa insisted that her name was Sacagawea, a compound in their language of the words for bird and woman. The Shoshones countered that that name was a corruption of her original Shoshone name, Sacajawea, which means launcher of boats. The Hidatsa might have stolen Sacajawea, the Shoshones said, but they shouldn't be allowed to steal her name.
My grandmother grew up with the Sacajawea usage, popularized by an early edition of the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Yet she preferred the Bird Woman interpretation. She thought the statue in Washington Park showed the dauntless young woman about to take flight. I think she imagined herself doing the same thing.