It is astonishing how much has been written about Sacagawea given the paucity of hard information on her. There are few documentary sources apart from the Lewis and Clark journals, and even the derivation and spelling of her name is at issue. Should it be Sacajawea, supposedly a Shoshone word meaning “Boat -Launcher.” or should it be Sacagawea, a Hidatsa word for “Bird Woman”–the commonly accepted version today- Since attempts at spelling her name in the journals indicate that the third consonant was hard, it has also been rendered Sakakawea, the preferred spelling in North Dakota, just as Sacajawea has been favored in Wyoming, where the legend persists that she lived to a ripe old age, dying on the Wind River Shoshone Reservation in 1884 a few years short of a hundred. This was the romantically-appealing but historically-suspect position taken by Wyoming historian Grace Raymond Hebard in her influential 1932 biography Sacajawea–a position uniformly rejected by modern authorities, who agree that Sacagawea, the Bird Woman, died in her mid-twenties in December 1812, six years after the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned home.
What do we know as a matter of historical record about Sacagawea- Gary Moulton, editor of the definitive modern edition of The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, remarks that “the amount written about her far exceeds the actual information about her life and personality.” Indeed, Moulton can summarize what is known about her in less than a page. A Shoshone born about 1788, she was captured by the Hidatsa as a girl of twelve near the Three Forks of the Missouri River, and was living in the middle Hidatsa village on the Missouri in 1804 when acquired as a wife by Toussaint Charbonneau, an independent French Canadian trader thirty years her senior. On November 4 that year Lewis and Clark hired the couple as interpreters at Fort Mandan, their winter quarters on the Missouri River. Clark’s journal entry was succinct: “A french man by Name Chabonah, who Speaks the Big Belley [Gros Ventre] language visit us, he wished to hire & informed us his 2 Squars were Snake [Shoshone] Indians, we engage him to go on with us and take one of his wives to interpret the Snake language.” Sacagawea, Moulton notes, proved her worth in that capacity “among the Shoshonean-speaking people in the Rockies,” and contributed as a guide “in the region of southwestern Montana in which she had spent her childhood.” The record also supports her symbolic value to the expedition. She had given birth to Jean Baptiste (“my boy Pomp,” as Clark would dub him) on February 11 1805, some two months-before Lewis and Clark departed Fort Mandan to resume their journey to the Pacific. The fact that a mother and infant were along “reconciles all the Indians, as to our friendly intentions,” Clark observed in his journal on October 13. “A woman with a party of men is a token of peace.”
This much is certain, then. Sacagawea, a young Indian mother and her infant boy accompanied “a party of men” on an arduous journey across the continent to the Pacific Ocean and back again. In and of itself this was accomplishment enough to secure her place in history. But over time Sacagawea became something more than a brave and resourceful woman who shared all the hardships of the trek. She became an American icon.
Such was not always the case. No picture exists of Sacagawea, and none appeared in the school readers published before 1900–hardly a surprise, considering the short shrift usually given the Lewis and Clark Expedition in nineteenth-century histories. It merited less than a single paragraph in John Clark Ridpath’s 691-page Popular History of the United States of America (1878). As the centennial of the expedition approached, however, interest stirred and Sacagawea emerged as an equal partner in discovery, an inspiration for women everywhere–and, eventually, as the third member of what became the unmistakable triumvirate of Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea, infant strapped on her back, as she literally pointed the way west for the explorers. Sacagawea had stepped from the periphery to become, by popular reckoning, a key actor in the drama of discovery. Today she actually identifies the celebrated duo of Lewis and Clark, who have been pictured as Minute Men clones in tri-cornered hats and as Dan’1 Boone look-alikes in frontier buckskins, according to the artist’s preference, but are unmistakably Lewis and Clark when Sacagawea is included.
As Gary Moulton notes, “illustrators charged with making a picture to represent ‘The Lewis and Clark Expedition’ have usually produced variations on a familiar theme: the two captains, slightly differentiated by dress, gaze off into the western distance; Sacagawea stands nearby with her infant, sometimes pointing the way. Clark’s black servant, York, is usually prominent, especially in recent years, and Toussaint Charbonneau and Lewis’s dog, Scannnon (or Seamen), are frequently present. In the background an anonymous collection of buckskin-clad figures representing the rest of the party follow their leaders’ gaze toward the horizon or go about their labors. This familiar picture represents the popular conception on the expedition . . .”
Fig 2: Daubs’ monumental sculpture combines a standing Lewis, a seated Clark and a kneeling Sacagawea facing one way, York and Seaman the other.
Sacagawea’s reputation as the expedition’s indispensable guide turns on William Clark’s journal entries in 1806 when Charbonneau and his wife and baby accompanied Clark’s party on the return journey. On July 6 Clark noted that in the valley of the Big Hole River, “the Squar pointed to the gap [in the mountains to the east] through which she said we must pass . . . She said we would pass the river before we reached the gap.” And on the 13th he added that she had been “of great Service to me as a pilot through this Country.” Drawing on Clark’s characterization, Sacagawea has been transformed into the “woman pilot” who steered Lewis and Clark to the Pacific and then back home again.
The transformation began in 1902 with Eva Emery Dye’s thinly fictionalized novel The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark. In a chapter titled “A Woman Pilot” Sacagawea points out familiar landmarks to the explorers and is described as “a Princess come home to her Mountain Kingdom.” The woman pilot image was irresistible, and Dye challenged artists to give it visual form:.
Sacajawea, modest princess of the Shoshones, heroine of the great expedition, stood with her babe in arms and smiled . . . So had she stood in the Rocky Mountains pointing out the gates. So had she followed the great rivers, navigating the continent.
Sacajawea’s hair was neatly braided, her nose was fine and straight, and her skin pure copper like the statue in some old Florentine gallery. Madonna of her race, she had led the way to a new time. To the hands of this girl, not yet eighteen, had been intrusted the key that unlocked the road to Asia.
Some day upon the Bozeman Pass, Sacajawea’s statue will stand beside that of Clark. Some day, where the rivers part, her laurels will vie with those of Lewis.
Within three years of publication of Dye’s novel the first book devoted exclusively to Sacagawea, Katherine Chandler’s The Bird-Woman of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, appeared as a supplementary reader for elementary school students. It picked up where Dye left off:
The Bird-Woman was an Indian.
She showed the white men the way into the West.
There were no roads to the West then.
That was one hundred years ago.
This Indian woman took the white men across streams.
She took them over hills.
She took them through bushes.
She seemed to find her way as a bird does.
The white men said, “She goes like a bird.
“We will call her the Bird-Woman.”
Her Indian name was Sacajawea.
Fittingly, the book’s frontispiece featured a photograph of a Sacagawea monument that had been dedicated in Portland, Oregon on July 6 1905 with Susan B. Anthony in attendance as the main speaker. The Women’s Club of Portland had commissioned the heroic-sized statue the previous year. In keeping with the club’s theme of recognizing women’s contributions to Western development, the artist chosen was Alice Cooper, a Denver sculptor. Her monument complemented the theme of Portland’s ambitious Lewis and Clark Exposition, marking the centennial of the explorers’ arrival on the Pacific Coast, and served “to record woman’s part in working out the plan of our Western civilization . . . In patience, courage, and endurance, woman proved man’s equal.”
Cooper created a simple yet dramatic rendering of Sacagawea that simultaneously emphasized her maternal role and her role as guide to the expedition. Her baby peers over her shoulder as she, with upraised arm, points off in the distance. A poem published in the Oregon Journal accompanied a photograph of the monument:
In yonder city, glory crowned,
Where art will vie with art to keep
The memories of those heroes green,
The flush of conscious pride should leap
To see her fair memorial stand
Among the honored names that be
Her face toward the sunset, still
Her finger lifted toward the sea!
It is possible that other artists anticipated Cooper’s finger-pointing Sacagawea. A print identified as the work of nineteenth-century illustrator Alfred Russell shows a blanket-wrapped Sacagawea, her baby riding in a cradle-board on her back, pointing off’ in the distance. But Russell’s Sacagawea, turning her conventionally pretty face towards the two captains and smiling winsomely, looks suspiciously like the other Indian princesses who were a staple of early twentieth-century advertising and calendar art.
The Indian princess is a key to understanding Sacagawea imagery. Long before she was born Europeans had settled on the figure of an Indian woman to represent America (“The Fourth Continent”)–an allegorical convention adopted in the late eighteenth century by the newly-established United States of America. Cigar store Indians–carved figures that were a popular form of outdoor advertising for tobacconists in the nineteenth-century–also included a few Indian women extending a clutch of cigars and sometimes soliciting attention with a supplicating gesture associated with Pocahontas, the original inspiration for the whole tribe of Indian princesses. The Indian princess, as Rayna Green has observed, “must save or give aid to white men.” In rescuing Captain John Smith from certain execution Pocahontas became the prototype; Sacagawea’s services to the Lewis and Clark Expedition qualified her as well. The Indian Princess must also be pretty–Eva Dye, relying entirely on her imagination, described Sacagawea as “beautiful” and (making the link explicit) save for Pocahontas “the most traveled Indian Princess in our history.” Subsequently a novelist would embroider Dye’s description, adding to Sacagawea’s “neatly braided” hair, “fine and straight” nose, and skin of “pure copper like the statue in some old Florentine gallery,” a catalog of Caucasian traits: head shape, features, ears, nose, mouth, teeth, dark auburn hair, gray eyes, thick lashes, and skin “a tigerish color, so light in tone that each blush was to be seen . . . as vividly as in the face of the fairest French or American girl.”
An advertising image for the Oriental Dyeing and Cleaning Works published about 1920 indicates how readily Sacagawea could be plugged into the generic tradition of Indian princesses. Titled Sakaka-wea (Bird Woman), the print shows “a shapely Indian princess with perfect caucasian features,” Gail Guthrie Valaskakis commented, “dressed in a tight-fitting red tunic, spearing fish with a bow and arrow from a birch-bark canoe suspended on a mountain-rimmed, moonlit lake.”
The Indian princess is a Miss America in the making, and Sacagawea retained her “perfect caucasian features” whether played by an established star in a Hollywood movie or by a beauty queen in a local historical pageant. Donna Reed, herself a former beauty queen to whom the word “wholesome” stuck like glue during her career as a leading lady in the 1940s and ’50s, starred as Sacagawea in The Far Horizons (1955). Publicity stills show her posed in her buckskin costume more vamp than madonna, and firmly within the Indian princess tradition.
A postcard made in 1945 shows a pretty young white woman in a feather headdress impersonating Sacajawea, Girl Indian Guide. It is as much a tribute to Cooper’s statue unveiled forty years before as it is to the historical Sacagawea. It clearly demonstrates how the Portland monument had set the standard in Sacagawea imagery, literally pointing the way for later artists.
Montana’s peerless “Cowboy Artist,” for one, incorporated a pointing Sacagawea in his 1917 watercolor design for a monument, Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea.
He was responding to a proposal by the Society of Montana Pioneers in 1916 calling for “the erection of heroic bronze statues at the Great Falls and at the Three Forks of the Missouri to commemorate the arrival at these sites during the summer of 1805 of the Lewis and Clark expedition.” Russell’s design was reproduced in the Society’s program for its 1917 meeting, and approval requested of the membership for a “large and costly monument to be erected at Great Falls in honor of the memory and achievements of Lewis & Clark …. It is proposed by the Chamber of Commerce of Great Falls, who inaugurated the movement, to make the dedication of the monument a National affair . . . The conception of the idea enlisted at once the services of the most celebrated of the western artists, Mr. Chas. M. Russell . . . The clay models of the proposed work is now being prepared by one of the most celebrated sculptors in the United States, Mr. Paul Fjelde, whose studio is in New York.”
The original plan called for two monuments, “one to be placed at the City of Great Falls, the other at the confluence of the three rivers forming the Missouri, the design of both to be alike.” Great Falls objected: it wanted a monument all its own. Perhaps this disagreement was enough to derail plans. At any rate, Russell’s design would not be rendered into sculptural form until 1929, three years after his death, and the artist chosen would be not Paul Fjelde but Henry Lion, a young Los Angeles sculptor hand-picked by Russell’s widow. The net effect was that the intended monument was never erected in Great Falls, and Lion’s sculpture, intended for placement in Fort Benton instead, was not cast until years later. Eventually a monument to Lewis and Clark loosely based on Russell’s design would be sculpted by Robert Scriver and erected in Fort Benton, at the head of navigation on the Missouri, in 1976. Called Explorers at the Marias, Scriver’s group shows Sacagawea seated at the feet of Lewis and Clark, gazing into the distance as they attempt to determine the true source of the Missouri at a fork in the river. Interestingly, she no longer points the way west.
After Cooper, the pointing Sacagawea had become something of a cliche. Inspired by Russell’s design, his Great Falls neighbor Jessie Lincoln Mitchell modeled Sacagawea in a fringed dress, baby peering over her shoulder, right hand pointing. Mitchell intended her figure to stand at the Gates of the Mountains, near Helena. She took her working model to Russell for criticism. If a Mandan or Shoshone woman “was ever caught with her buckskin skirt up to her knees and her dress off her shoulders like this,” he told her, “the old chief wouldn’t look around for a white man to scalp!” He made other costume suggestions, and Mitchell incorporated them in her final design, noting that “my model of Sacajawea was to that extent guided by Russell.” Cyrus Dallin, renowned in his day as a sculptor of Indian men–his equestrian statue Appeal to the Great Spirit (1909) remains probably his best known work–created a model of Sacajawea in 1914 showing her stepping forward, left arm at her side, right arm extended, pointing.
Lincoln Borglum subsequently proposed a huge Sacagawea monument, 530 feet high, to be made of steel, concrete and glass, that would stand near the Mandan village north of Bismarck, North Dakota; his model for the figure was said to be an actual descendant of Sacagawea, who again would be portrayed pointing with her right hand. Borglum’s ambitious monument was never erected, but a marble relief sculpture by Leo Friedlander showing a standing Sacagawea pointing the way for the mounted explorers was dedicated at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem. in 1938. Known as Lewis and Clark Led by Sacajawea, its base carries the legend “Westward the star of empire takes its way.”
School history texts in the twentieth century routinely featured Lewis and Clark illustrations showing Sacagawea as guide; one can serve for the many: The Bird Woman Showing Lewis and Clark the Way illustrated Thomas M. Marshall’s American History (1935), and serves as a direct tribute to Cooper’s enduring influence.
The pointing figure of Sacagawea has become so familiar that it seems almost inevitable. Could she have been shown any other way? In fact, it took time for Sacagawea to be enshrined as the expedition’s guide in Lewis and Clark imagery. In many paintings from the early 1900s she was a passive witness to events rather than an active participant in them. In Lewis and Clark, one in a series of ten paintings on the theme “Great Explorers” published in Collier’s Weekly in 1905-06, Frederic Remington, who rarely included women in his work, showed Sacagawea standing behind her husband, Charbonneau, looking on as Lewis and Clark, seated in the foreground, map out their strategy.
His portrayal of Sacagawea resembles a sculpture by Bruno Lewis Zimm exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair (officially, the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition) in 1904, where one of Remington’s celebrated cowboy groups was also on display. Zimm showed his Sacagawea with a walking stick–a convention that was adopted by Edgar S. Paxson, a Montana painter, in standing portraits of Sacagawea painted in 1904 and 1914.
It is noteworthy that the earlier of the two portraits showed Sacagawea leaning on her stick gazing off in the distance, while that done in 1914, after Cooper’s Portland monument had attracted considerable attention, shows her pointing with her left hand.
Old conventions died hard. But another impressive early monument, Leonard Crunelle’s Sakakawea, provided an alternative to Alice Cooper’s conception. Unveiled in 1910 on the North Dakota State Capitol Grounds in Bismarck, it marked the beginning point of Sacagawea’s journey, as the Portland monument marked its western end. Relying on a portrait of Mink Woman, a Hidatsa, Crunelle created a standing figure, chin raised, eyes fixed on distant prospects, her baby boy gazing over her shoulder, mirroring his mother’s gaze.
Though never as influential as Cooper’s statue, Crunelle’s Sakakawea shared the same motivation (both were commissioned by local Women’s Clubs to honor a woman’s achievements) and left its own imprint on later depictions. D. Handsaker s textbook illustration of 1932, Sacaiawea, an Indian Girl, is a case in point.
An interesting variation in Sacagawea imagery was introduced in 1905 with Henry Altman’s equestrian portrait. Other artists have followed suit, but a mounted Sacagawea has never had the obvious appeal of a standing Sacagawea pointing off in the distance. Recent artists have mostly avoided the finger-pointing cliche, though it was revived in two of the original designs for the Sacagawea “gold dollar” first minted in 2000, and in a 1991 sculpture by John M. Soderberg, Birdwoman. A new trend in Sacagawea imagery–including the likeness on the dollar coin–recognizes that she was still in her teens when she accompanied Lewis and Clark. Michael Haynes’ standing portrait Sacagawea shows her as round faced and small, a girl/woman who was herself a mother, and a historian has recently dampened the celebratory tone of Sacagawea imagery by pointing out that she was never in control of her own destiny. She accompanied the expedition as a hostage to the decisions of others, Albert Furtwangler writes, not as an independent actor.
But Sacagawea has long since transcended such historical realism. She continues to be the glamorous Indian princess in paintings faithful to the conventions of historical romance–her blanket flies out behind her in the cover art for Anna Lee Waldo’s best-selling novel Sacajawea (1979), an image indebted to N. C. Wyeth’s famous 1909 painting Winter (Wyeth also painted a pointing Sacagawea in 1939). If too many sentimental pictures of her festooned in feathers, at once demure and seductive, or stroking a horse’s muzzle, all tender love, begin to cloy, there is a potent antidote in Harry Jackson’s monumental 1980 sculpture Sacajawea at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming. Jackson portrays her as an American madonna, her blanket billowing, her hair streaming in the wind, rooted in her native soil, Powerful and permanent, she is no hand-maiden to white ambition; she is the earth itself.
Generic portrayals of Sacagawea as princess, guide, silent witness, madonna, and the omnipresent third member of the iconic trio have been interspersed with attempts to depict the few documented incidents where she merited individual mention in the Lewis and Clark journals. In order, these are:
May 14 1805: When the captains’ pirogue (with her husband at the helm) nearly capsized, Sacagawea who was in the rear had the presence of mind to catch “the articles which floated out”–thus helping avert any loss in what would have been a disaster had the pirogue sunk, since it contained, as Clark noted, “our papers, Instruments, books, medicine, a great proportion of our merchandise, and in short almost every article indispensably necessary to . . . insure the success of the enterprise in which, we are now launched to the distance of 2,200 miles.” Artist John Severin captured the moment in a pen and ink sketch published in 1968.
June 13-18 1805: It looked for awhile as though Sacagawea would die en route to the Pacific. She took ill on June 13 and Clark, who deemed her condition “Somewhat dangerous,” on the 15th applied a poultice to her lower abdomen (pelvic area), which gave her temporary relief, though she refused all medicine and continued to sink. Lewis on the 16th determined to try the waters of a sulphur spring located a couple of hundred yards from the Missouri’s north bank (known to this day as Sacagawea Springs) and. in conjunction with a mixture of barks and opium, produced such a rapid turn around that she was pronounced cured by the 18th: “The Indian woman is recovering fast,” Lewis wrote. “She set up the greater part of the day and walked out for the fist time since she arrived here; she eats heartily and is free from fever or pain.” Olaf C. Seltzer made a miniature oil painting in the 1930s titled Sacajawea at the Sulphur Spring (June 16, 1805).
June 29 1805: While inspecting the Upper (Black Eagle) Falls of the Missouri in the company of Charbonneau, Sacagawea and her infant on June 29 1805, Clark noticed “a very black cloud rising in the West which threatened immediate rain.” He located a deep ravine where the party could be sheltered from the wind and rain–but not from the effects of an especially violent downfall which “instantly collected in the ravine and came down in a rolling torrent with irresistible force driving rocks mud and everything before it,” Lewis reported. “I took my gun & Shot pouch in my left hand, and with the right Scrambled up the hill pushing the Interpreters wife (who had her Child in her arms) before me, the Interpreter himself making attempts to pull up his wife by the hand . . . before I got out of the bottom of the ravine which was a flat dry rock when I entered it, the water was up to my waste & wet my watch. . .” A few artists, including Charles M. Russell and Olaf Seltzer, have pictured this near tragedy. Russell’s 1903 watercolor Captain Clark, Chaboneau, Sacagawea, and Papoose in the Cloud-burst near the Great Falls, on June 29, 1805 was reproduced in 1904, but the original is presently unlocated. Seltzer’s version, The Deluge at Colter Falls, another miniature oil, is in the collection of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Seltzer has added another figure to his composition, that of Clark’s black servant, York, who had accompanied the party but had gone off in search of buffalo and was not present when the others scrambled out of the ravine. “We at length retched the top of the hill Safe,” Clark noted, “where I found my Servant in Search of us greatly agitated, for our welfare–”
July 22 1805: “The Indian woman recognizes the country and assures us that this is the river on which her relations live, and that the three forks [of the Missouri] are at no great distance,” Lewis observed on July 22. “This piece of information has cheered the spirits of the party who now begin to console themselves with the anticipation of shortly seeing the head of the Missouris yet unknown to the civilized world.” Subsequently she recognized the very spot where she was taken captive by the Hidatsas. This was the inspiration for Edgar S. Paxson’s 1912 historical mural Lewis and Clark at Three-Forks in which he offered his version of a pointing Sacagawea,
August 17 1805: The meeting with Sacagawea’s people, the Shoshones, was so historically important in securing the horses the expedition needed to cross the mountains, and so obviously rife with emotion for Sacagawea that artists have been irresistibly drawn to it. Lewis, who contacted the Shoshones first, commented that “the meeting of those people was really affecting, particularly between Sah cah-gar-we-ah and an Indian woman, who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped from the Minnetares [Hidatsas] and rejoined her nation.” This is the incident depicted in Charles Russell’s brilliant 1918 oil painting Lewis and Clark Expedition. As Clark’s party, including Charbonneau and Sacagawea, drew near to the Indians, Clark reported, “the Interpreter & Squar . . . danced for the joyful Sight, and She made signs to me that they were her nation, as I approached nearer them discovered one of Capt Lewis party With them dressed in their Dress; they met me with great Signs of joy. . .” Russell has shown the encounter down to the white man in Indian dress reining in his horse on the left and, in the distance, another detail mentioned by Clark: “those Indians Sung all the way to their Camp where the others had provd. a cind of Shade of Willows Stuck up in a Circle.”
Montana artist James Kenneth Ralston in his 1964 oil Shoshonis at Last provided a sequel to Russell’s painting, the reception accorded Clark’s party when they reached the willow shelter. “The Three Chiefs with Capt. Lewis met me with great cordiality embraced and took a Seat on a white robe,” Clark wrote: “The (perog) Canoes arrived & unloaded– every thing appeared to astonish those people. the appearance of the men, their arms, the Canoes, the Clothing my black Servant & the Segassity of Capt Lewis’s Dog.” Ralston crowded all of these particulars into a single composition in which Sacagawea, standing on the right, observes as a chief embraces Clark and she recognizes him as her brother–a remarkable coincidence that both Lewis and Clark reported, albeit tersely, in their journals. “The Indian woman proved to be a sister of the Chief Cameahwait,” Lewis wrote. Clark adding: “the Great Chief of this nation proved to be the brother of the Woman with us and is a man of Influence Sense & ease & reserved manners.”
January 6 1806: After the Corps of Discovery was settled in its winter quarters at Fort Clatsop in present-day Oregon, Clark set out on the seven mile trek by water and foot to the ocean. He had heard of a beached whale and was determined to acquire a supply of whale oil and blubber. Sacagawea had pleaded to go along, Clark noted, and he granted her wish. “She observed that She had traveled a long way with us to See the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be Seen, She thought it very hard that She Could not be permitted to See either (She had never yet been to the Ocean).” Though artists have shown Sacagawea wading in the surf like a summer tourist at what today is the resort town of Cannon Beach, the January excursion was no picnic. The wind was blowing hard when Clark’s party reached the ocean on the 8th, and the sea, he said, was “breaking with great force against the Scattering rocks at Some distance from Shore, and the rugged rocky points under which we were obliged to pass.” One false step and they would have been “dashed against the rocks in an instant, fortunately we passed over 3 of those dismal points and arrived on a beautiful Sand Shore on which we Continued for 2 miles, Crossed a Creek 80 yards near 5 Cabins, and proceeded to the place the whale had perished, found only the Skeleton of this monster on the Sand between 2 of the villages of the Kil a mox nation.” The whale, which “lay on the Strand where the waves and tide had driven up & left it,” was “already pillaged of every valuable part,” and the Tillamooks were “busily engaged boiling the blubber.” But the skeleton, measured at 105 feet in length, was impressive, and Sacagawea’s insistence on seeing it and the ocean for herself has cemented her reputation as something much more than a “tag-along” on the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Artist John Clymer paid tribute to her initiative in a 1974 oil painting that captured the Gold Medal in its category at the National Academy of Western Art Show that year, Sacajawea at the Big Water. A Washington native with a strong background in Northwest Coast themes, Clymer enjoyed a long, successful career as a commercial illustrator and, beginning in 1942, a Saturday Evening Post cover artist. In the early 1960s he began a second career when he turned to historical Western art. With a special affinity for mountain men subjects, he reached back in time to paint this arresting image of Sacagawea, moccasins in hand, cradleboard on back, wading in the Pacific surf. “This must have been a great experience in her life and one of the wonders of the journey,” Clymer’s biographer observed.
April 28, May 11, July 3 1806: Besides her services as interpreter during the critical negotiation for horses with the Shoshones (she rendered their words into Hidatsa, Charbonneau the Hidatsa into French, and another expedition member the French into English), Sacagawea was able to communicate with the Walla-Wallas through a Shoshone woman held captive among them. As Clark noted in his journal on April 28: “We found a Sho Sho ne woman, prisoner among those people by means of whome and Sah-cah gah-weah, Shabano’s wife we found means of Converceing with the Wallahwallars. we Conversed with them for Several hours and fully Satisfy all their enquiries with respect to our Selves and the Object of our pursuit. they were much pleased.” On the 1lth of May Clark recorded a meeting with several headmen of the Chopunnish (Nez Perce) nation. “By the assistance of the Snake boy and our interpreters,” Clark noted, we “were enabled to make ourselves under stood by them altho’ it had to pass through French, Minnetare, Shoshone and Chopunnish languages. The interpretation being tedious it occupied the greater part of the day, before we had communicated to them what we wished.” When Clark set out on his own on July 3 1806 to explore the Yellowstone, he took with his party Charbonneau and Sacagawea “as an interpreter & interpretess for the Crow Inds and the latter for the Shoshoni.”
Though the convention of Sacagawea pointing the way as guide has dominated Sacagawea imagery, Charles M. Russell offered a fanciful but beautifully-painted tribute to her primary role as interpreter in a 1905 watercolor, Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia. With a deep interest in Montana Indian cultures and a facility at sign language himself, Russell often portrayed parties of Indians in which one member communicates with the others in sign to avoid breaking the silence in hostile country. Here he depicts Sacagawea translating to a party of Northwest Coast Indians in war canoes at the mouth of the Columbia River. To add pictorial interest, he shows her standing and gesturing in sign language, thus reinforcing her spoken words.
“Discovered” by women with a point to make in the early years of the twentieth century, Sacagawea as an icon of women’s liberation was the subject of five sculptures before the First World War. Subsequently she was fully integrated into the imagery of Lewis and Clark. When the federal government issued a stamp in 1954 commemorating the 150th anniversary of the expedition, it showed the two explorers in the foreground, Sacagawea standing behind. Recently, in response to the modern woman’s movement and a new search for Founding Mothers, she has returned to her singular status once again, Bust portraits are the vogue. Her face graced a commemorative stamp of her own in the “Legends of the West” series issued in 1993,
and it is now indelibly stamped along with that of her baby on the wildly popular Sacagawea “gold dollar” which (perhaps fittingly, given her role as speaker at the Portland monument dedication in 1905) replaced the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin in 2000.
As the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition approaches, Sacagawea imagery is already pouring forth. Unconstrained by fact, artists are free to interpret her as they will. Attempts at historical realism may vie with variations on the tried-and-true stereotypes–beautiful princess, native Madonna, indispensable guide. But realism is bound to lose out in the end. Fact has never trumped romance in Sacagawea imagery because the legend of Sacagawea has an emotional appeal mere fact can never equal. Sacagawea is today the most honored woman in American history. Her name adorns troop ships, parks, schools and landmarks galore. Any artist who would successfully portray her must come to grips with her legend. “There were many heroes, there was but one heroine in this band of immortals,” a writer asserted at the time of the Lewis and Clark centennial in 1904. “All honor to her!” One hundred years later Sacagawea is literally coin of the realm part of the common currency of what it means to be an American.