Sakakawea – Sacajawea – Sacagawea

She Who Comes By Boat

I watched a documentary that began by professing Sacajawea may be one of the most famous women in American history.  Curiously, though, no one bothered to ask her how to spell her name.  As a result, whenever I share her story with people, I’m often asked how to pronounce her name, but with a myriad of spellings, it’s impossible to say empirically.  She started her life in Montana as a Shoshoni child, where the name Sacajawea may have been an accurate pronunciation, but it’s also quite likely she didn’t have this name when she was taken from her people as a young teenager.

Her Hidatsa name, Sakagawea, when broken out by syllables translated into Bird Woman, a name often used by the leaders of the Corps of Discovery, although they were even more likely to refer to her as the Squaw.  She accepted her Hidatsa name, and her Hidatsa life, and only returned to her original home as part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  When she arrived with the thirty men, she and her baby entered the area in small watercraft, sailing upstream on the Missouri River into the Jefferson River as they ascend the eastern slopes of the Bitterroots.  Curiously, in the Shoshoni language, Sacajawea can be translated as “one who travels with the boats.”

She Who Comes By SUV

I imagine what Sakakawea would think of my adventures in this modern age.  There quite likely isn’t a name in Shoshoni or Hidatsa for a woman who comes by SUV.  People sometimes tell me I am courageous because I adventure wherever I choose, usually alone, and I accept new places and new circumstances with ease (or what appears to be ease).  But I didn’t climb into a dug-out canoe with a three-month-old baby joining a group of total strangers heading into the fiercest mountains, facing starvation and sickness and survival.  Sure, I traveled along a similar route as her, more than once on my own, but on paved roads rather than along rivers.  Despite our similar paths followed, I cannot legitimately compare myself to her and her bravery.

So when I answer the question, “How do you pronounce her name,” I admit that I don’t know, but that she meant many things to many peoples.  As the Corps of Discovery traveled west, she represented a symbol of peace – a woman and child with a group of explorers surely couldn’t be a war party.  She offered focus and responsibility, she spoke a language the Corps needed, she accepted her duty and charge as if a commissioned officer, yet served as a woman’s voice around the campfire at night, soothing and nurturing her infant son.  When people ask me about her name, there’s no one right answer, just like there’s no one contribution she made to the Corps of Discovery.  Her life wandered an unusual, amazing path, and she walked it well.  I wish I could be worthy of any of her names.

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