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Sacagawea's legacy

July 07, 2010

We broke camp early and headed south, following the Yellowstone River. Then, taking a quick jaunt through western Wyoming we tacked our ship, pointed it west and followed the Pacific sun.

This is my last write chronicling this Montana adventure, a class about Lewis and Clark and surviving on the land. I hoped to report back numerous findings and I had scribbled copious notes — all of which were inadvertently burned while starting a campfire.

I told my students that a sense of history does not come solely from knowledge. Sometimes one is guided by intuition. The land has its own mythology; visions come to me by something felt in the wind and something seen in a starlit night.

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Subsequently I've been haunted by Sacagawea. Her life is a mystery. In 1800 she was kidnapped by a war party of Hidatsa Indians, enemies of her people, the Shoshone, and taken from the Rocky Mountains to the Hidatsa-Mandan villages in North Dakota.

Historians cite that she was a remarkably beautiful woman. Later she was sold as a slave to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian fur trader. Her only role in life was to bear children, and be an obedient servant to her man. However, she was about to enter a grander stage.

In November 1804, the Corps of Discovery arrived at the Hidatsa-Mandan village. The captains Lewis and Clark, learning that Charbonneau's woman spoke Shoshone, agreed to hire him. In February 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to her son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who became America's youngest explorer.

This 17-year-old girl carrying her baby was unaware of the role she'd play in the making of American history. She quietly accepted her fate. By happenstance and a succession of unwarranted interventions, Sacagawea moved the journey westward.

Sacagawea and Jean Baptiste signaled peace and protected the expedition from attacks from indigenous peoples. She taught the men how to find edible plants, giving them needed vitamins and nourishment. She rescued the captains' journals that fell overboard from a capsized canoe. She brought a sense of calm to the Corps of Discovery as she nursed her baby amid the men.

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