The woman is Sacajawea, who served as an Indian interpreter on Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery Expedition across the Rocky Mountains from 1804-1806. The statue captures the moment she first saw the Pacific Ocean.
Sacajawea was born near the Lemhi Mountains in present-day Idaho. A member of the Shoshone tribe, she was kidnapped during a raid by hostile Hidastu Indians and taken to North Dakota when she was 12. A year later, Touissant Charbonneau, a French fur trapper, either bought her or won her by gambling and made her his wife. In 1804, she was 16, pregnant and living in a Hidastu village along the Missouri River near Fort Mandan, where the Lewis and Clark expedition had made its winter camp. Her husband, Charbonneau was hired by the captains to serve as an interpreter. Lewis and Clark then learned that Sacajawea spoke Shoshone and asked her to accompany the expedition as well. Not long before the team left their winter camp, Sacajawea gave birth to a baby boy who accompanied her on the journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Sacajawea played a vital role in the expedition’s success. She gathered roots, berries and plants for food and medicine. Her quick response to a near-capsize resulted in the recovery of several important items including Lewis and Clark’s journals and scientific instruments. And, of course, she was invaluable in communicating with the native people encountered along the way. Often the translations were complex with Sacajawea translating into Hidastu to her husband, Charbonneau speaking French to another expedition member, and then this man translating the conversation into English for Lewis and Clark.
In August 1805, the Corps made contact with a Shoshone tribe with whom they sought to trade for horses to cross the Rocky Mountains. Sacajawea was brought in to translate and it was discovered that the tribe’s chief was her brother, Cameahwait.
Lewis recorded the reunion in his journal: “Shortly after Captain Clark arrived with the Interpreter Charbono [sic], and the Indian woman, who proved to be a sister of the Chief Cameahwait. The meeting of those people was really affecting, particularly between Sah cah-gar-we-ah [sic] and an Indian woman who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped …and rejoined her nation.”
Sacajawea’s story becomes murky after the expedition’s conclusion in 1806. Some records indicate she died of “putrid fever” in North Dakota in 1812, shortly after giving birth to a daughter. According to this account, William Clark adopted both children, although her daughter, Lizette, does not seem to have survived childhood.
Other stories relate how Sacajawea left Charbonneau and made her way back West to be with her people, the Shoshone. Some say she ended up back in Lemhi country near Fort Hall, Idaho, while others say she moved to the Wind River Valley where she lived until 1884. The Eastern Shoshone who live in Fort Washakie believe this version of history and point to records left by the Reverend John Roberts who presided at her funeral and declared that she was in fact, Sacajawea although she was known by this time as Porivo.
Like Sacajawea’s life, the spelling of her name is also controversial. The Shoshone spell her name with a ‘j’ and say her name is derived from the Shoshone word for boat puller or boat launcher. Some language experts dispute this claim, saying that the word Sacajawea is not of Shoshone origin, but the Shoshone dismiss this and say her name was simply corrupted by the Hidastu during her time in captivity. Other spellings include using a “g” or even a “k in place of the “j.” There is little consistency in Lewis and Clark’s spellings, although her name appears 17 times in their journals. Sakakawea, with the hard k sound, is close to a Hidastu work meaning bird woman. Lewis did refer to her as bird woman once in his journal.
In Wind River Country, Sacajawea is remembered for her wisdom, calm, perseverance and humor. Many Eastern Shoshone on the Wind River Indian Reservation trace their ancestry back to her with pride. She was also said to have been a respected counselor to Chief Washakie and she is honored even today for the important role she played in American history.