"For a subject worked and reworked so often in novels, motion pictures, and television, American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all."

-John F. Kennedy in
the introduction to The American Heritage Book of Indians

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Stanton, North Dakota: The Home of Sakakawea

In the summer of 2009, I lived in a rather unremarkable small North Dakota town.  Situated just off the confluence of the Knife and Missouri Rivers, it features straight streets and tall trees.  It has a corner gas station and one bar.  It even has a small city park down by the river where on a good day the walleye are biting.

But Stanton, North Dakota is not just another prairie town.  Stanton, North Dakota is special.  Stanton, North Dakota is the Home of Sakakawea.

The signs are everywhere:

Her name welcomes you into town...

 ...as her image graces the map

They have a city park named after her...

...and a gas station too!

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She even follows you as you drive down the main highway!

The woman we know today as Sakakawea or Sacagawea or Sacajawea was not born in Stanton or even in North Dakota.  She was born a Lemhi Shoshone in present-day Idaho.

She was kidnapped by a group of Hidatsa in a raid when she was all of twelve years-old.  She was taken to the Hidatsa village located today at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site just a mile north of town.  The now thirteen year-old Sakakawea was sold to the French trader Toussaint Charbonneau.  She spent four years living in a Hidatsa earthlodge toiling away for her "husband" until the storied Corps of Discovery arrived in 1804.  The rest as they say...

...is history.

Or is it?

We all know the story of Sakakawea.  She led Lewis and Clark across the plains, through the mountains, and down to the Pacific.  Her skills in finding food and translating foreign tongues proved invaluable.  Her fortuitous run-in with her Shoshone brother was practically destined.  And she did all this while carrying her infant son "Pomp".

This is the history we were all taught growing up.  It is the true story of a remarkable woman who accomplished remarkable things.  But it is so much more than just history.

The story of Sakakawea is part of our national cultural consciousness.  She is a mythic figure on par with the greats in American history.  How else could she get her own space in Statuary Hall in our nation's capitol:

Sakakawea stands second only to Pocahontas in our cultural obsession with a figure about whom we know so very little.  Not once do we hear her voice in the historical record.  Instead, we know this young woman through the writings of a select few white men, each with their own opinions, biases, and expectations.

Two hundred years after she returned to the villages of the Knife River, her image remains in that place but it is not an image she would recognize.  Two centuries worth of artists, writers, and politicians have worked together to create our common perception of this young woman.  From a handful of sources, they've carved her in stone, cast her in bronze, and painted her on canvas.  They made her physical, all while cementing her place in myth and memory.

I invite you all to stare into the eyes of Sakakawea and ask yourself one question...

...do we really know her?


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