(PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE STATE HISTORICAL ARCHIVES OF NORTH DAKOTA: 701-328-2666)
Much of tribal history has been passed down through the oral tradition for generations. So today, these stories can be told in slightly different ways. Add in the US westward expansion in the early 1800s, and the stories become even more blurred.
There is one Native American woman whose story has been told so many times and in so many ways, that she’s become the most well-known and celebrated woman in American history.
We share the many legends of Sakakawea, in today’s Hidden History.
Welcome to Knife River Indian Villages, now located in the town of Stanton, North Dakota. We spent the morning walking along the land Sakakawea grew up on.
She lived in an earth lodge much like the replica at Knife River today. It’s the land that she lived on for several years. You can see the indents in the earth, where the Mandan and Hidatsa lodges once stood.
But when and how she arrived here is up for debate. Because multiple tribes have tried to claim her as their own over the years, it’s not really clear if she was, in fact, Shoshone stolen by the Hidatsa in her early teenage years, or if she was born a Hidatsa.
MHA Nation Historian Calvin Grinnell shares, “My grandmother always said that she was our grandmother through a brother of hers or either a relative named Cherry Necklace. And from his story comes the corroboration that she was a Hidatsa and not a Shoshone.”
For almost five years, Grinnell and a group of Hidatsa historians, including his sister, Clarysa Mandan, are currently researching the oral traditions, along with DNA through Ancestry.com, to establish ties to Sakakawea.
We do know from journals, this is where she met Lewis and Clark when she was between 13 and 16 years old, and they began their two-year journey together in 1804.
Knife River Interpretive Park Ranger Darian Kath explains, “Sakakawea is pretty much like half, almost half of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as far as her time spent with the men of the Lewis and Clark expedition.”
She was chosen to go along because of her husband. Sakakawea was married off as one of many wives, to French Canadian Fur Trader Toussaint Charbonneau.
Grinnell adds, “Charbonneau actually sought them out. He wanted to be an interpreter, wanted to be their guide. So he was the one who said Sakakawea was a Shoshone. And of course, they couldn’t speak her language, everything she said had to go through him, so he was able to convince them that she was from Shoshone land.”
Grinnell said this claim was made to smooth trade relationships that became necessary along their journey.
He explains, “She was trying to diffuse the situation so there wouldn’t be any conflict because she had her baby with her, you know.”
Little is known about her life after she parted ways with Lewis and Clark. Kath says she likely passed in her 20s of a venereal disease. But according to Grinnell, the Hidatsa believe she likely lived into her 80s.
Grinnell believes, “She died from wounds sustained during an ambush.”
Which Grinnell says happened up the river from here.
Kath shares, “We can only glean a little bit from who she actually was. You know, we don’t know what she looked like. We know that she had two children. We know her approximate age, but beyond that, we don’t know the true Sakakawea.”
Fast forward to the suffrage movement, which celebrated 100 years in 2019:
Grinnell explains, “They put her in the front as a hero.”
Although Native American women wouldn’t gain the right to vote for another about 40 years, Sakakawea became the face of the movement.
Grinnell adds, “They promoted her as a strong woman, which she was.”
He says the romanticizing of Sakakawea as a white American icon became justification for the conquering of these lands.
Grinnell says, “They’ve sort of given her over to the history of America because she helped open up this west.”
Grinnell’s sister, Clarysa, says Sakakawea was never looking to be a hero. She was just doing her duty as a mother and as a tribal woman.
Grinnell adds, “She did the best she could. I think it’s a story that needs to be told. Our story needs to be told. I think we deserve that.”
Grinnell and his team of historians are in the process of drafting a book about Hidatsa history, including an in-depth look at Sakakawea’s story.