Sacajawea–There’s More to Her Than You Thought

Sacajawea Monument, n.d. Sacajawea Center, Salmon, Idaho. (Image: Sacajawea Center, Salmon, Idaho)

Let’s go back in time to when you were in third grade. To the time when history class was called social studies and the only things you tended to learn about were one of three things: (1) geography–basically looking at maps for the entire class (2) Native Americans and their “relationship” with the noble Christopher Columbus and (3) Henry Hudson and the creation of New York City. At least, this is what happened with me. Let’s face it–almost everything you learn in social studies up until about fifth grade or so, in the process of trying to make history “child-friendly,” practically becomes a lie. At this point in time, the only thing that I had learned about women in history is the fact that their role in Native American tribes was to gather food, take care of the children and, in certain tribes, were the leaders of their tribes. But their story is so much more complex than that and this could easily be proved by the story of Sacajawea.

I have only ever heard of the name Sacajawea in relation to the names of Lewis and Clark. Before sitting down to do research for this post this morning, my only identifier for this woman of strength and bravery was the fact that she was Lewis and Clark’s tour guide for their west bound expedition. Come to find out that she is the epitome of what a strong woman is. On top of traveling for weeks with a group of men she didn’t know, she did so with an infant daughter on her back all at the age of 16. She lived the majority of her life without her family, being that she was taken by a rival tribe, sold to slavery and forced to marry a French Canadian man at the age of 12. She is considered to be the most necessary component to the Lewis and Clark Expedition because her presence prevented skeptical tribes from attacking (even though it was her husband that was “selected” for the expedition). They never tell you that part of the story, huh?

Judy Chicago (American, b. 1939). The Dinner Party (Sacajawea place setting), 1974–79. Mixed media: ceramic, porcelain, textile. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Foundation, 2002.10. © Judy Chicago. Photograph by Jook Leung Photography

Sacajawea went against all of the odds, all of the expectations. At that time, Native Americans were considered savages and settlers didn’t give women nearly as much respect as the Native American tribes. The fact that she is the only Native American in Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party shows how essential she is to our history. One of the purposes that Chicago gives her collection is to bring back and recognize the women who have been erased from our history. Even though Sacajawea had never actually been erased from history, seeing as she is mentioned once or twice in our children’s textbooks and classrooms, she has never been credited for everything that she had done. Without her, our civilization could be centuries behind in terms of development because Lewis and Clark could not have made it without her. Either they would have died of starvation, cold, been attacked by tribes or just simply have turned around to go back home. In the description of her plate on the Brooklyn Museum website, it states, “She [Sacagawea] stands not only as a symbol of the strength of Native American women, but as an emblem of the tenacity and power of all women”–I couldn’t have said it better myself.

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