Tuesday, April 04, 2017
The birthday of an American girl
What happened to her when she was a kid wasn't all that unusual among nomadic, war-faring Great Plains tribes. When hers--the Shoshones--got into a bloody fight with another--the Hidatsas--she got herself kidnapped, lost her home, got another, and was eventually--sad but true--sold into slavery. She was only ten years old.
All of that sounds awful today, and it was. On the other hand, it wasn't at all unusual. What was unusual was the weird white men coming up the river, a whole number of them, in fact, dressed in ridiculous blue uniforms. It was the party of Lewis and Clark, who'd left from the confluence of the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers and struggled upstream in any way they could, bound for nobody knew exactly what--to find, those Native people must have figured, whatever it was they could find at the end of the river, like the end of the rainbow maybe. Sickly-looking people--so pale.
She'd got herself won in a card game not long before, both she and her friend Otter Woman, when a French-Canadian trapper, who was hardly a prize, won both of them with a fair-to-middlin' poker hand, Otter Woman and Sacajawea, then got Sacajawea with child, this 16-year-old girl hundreds of miles from home.
So when Lewis and Clark signed that trapper to do some scouting for them--they were up in what would be North Dakota at the time--Sacajawea was pregnant, plump as a plum. That baby was born while the whole party hibernated at Fort Mandan through an icebox winter.
But it turns out that for the Corps, she wasn't baggage at all, but a bona fide unforeseen benefit. Sacajawea, 16 years old, just happened to know her way around the neighborhood when the Missouri elbowed its way west into Montana. What's more, she knew the language! Good night, what a deal.
One could argue, although white people might find it hard to do, that without this girl, this kid, this teenage, unmarried mom, this Indian(!), Lewis and Clark and their much bally-hooed Corps of Discovery would have never made it to Oregon. There would have been others who would, of course, because pale-faced folks were swarming west in numbers that seemed unending to Native people, those white folks carrying diseases that would eventually wipe out tens of thousands, including most all of the Hidatsas.
Had Lewis and Clark made it no farther than Great Falls, there certainly would have been others out to see the vast American riches.Still, what Lewis and Clark did makes quite a story, finding their way from a hamlet called St. Louis, all the way to the Oregon coast, the Pacific Ocean, then going back in just a couple of years, an amazing record they couldn't have done without little Sacajawea, who was, for weeks of that trek, carrying her newborn.
When they were here--on Spirit Mound, in fact--they first "discovered" herd of buffalo. Tell that the the Yankton Sioux--to say they "discovered" anything is pitifully colonialist.
Anyway, as remarkable an enterprise as the Lewis and Clark adventure was, and it was--they lost only one of the company, not all that far from here either--they likely wouldn't have pulled it off without Sacajawea, that little Native girl with the tiny baby, a woman who died just a few years later, in 1812, of some kind of fever.
Today, people say, is her birthday, the Shoshone girl, Sacajawea--dare I say "the American girl," Sacajawea? I think so.
If there was justice in this country, the whole nation would celebrate.
Originally appeared in April of 2011.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 5:45 AM