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Meriwether Lewis | William Clark | Sacagawea | Why was Sacagawea important to the expedition? | The Others
Why was Sacagawea important to the expedition?

Theories of Her Life

We know of two different theories of her life.The modern theory or the theory that most people believe, that she was a Shoshoni. She was captured by the Hidatsa Indians in a war party, which was common. They would capture the women and children. And not always make slaves out of them, but take them into the tribe and marry them and they would live with them. The Hidatsa story to that is that Sacagawea was actually Hidatsa. She was born in a village, in a Little Missouri River village or Night Walkers Butte. And she was captured by the Shoshoni. It is said that when the young men went away to hunt, the Shoshoni came and captured her, her brother, other kids, and some women, and they took them back to Shoshoni country. And while she was there, she had been captured when she was old enough to understand that she wasnt from the Shoshonis. And so she would get very lonesome, and for a number of times she would go out in the evenings, and she would look to the east, look towards her village and cry, and miss her people. This old woman finally got there and noticed that, and she came to Sacagawea and told her, You know, Ive been watching you for a long time. And I know you miss your people and you dont belong here, you belong back with your people. And so the old woman continued and said, You come out here tomorrow night and you watch to the east, and whatever shows up, you follow that, and it will take you back to your people. What showed up that night was a wolf, and so the wolves brought her back to the Hidatsa. And when she was getting ready to go, she went and told her brother, who was going to be the leader of the Shoshoni. She asked him to go with her saying, Were gonna go home. And he said, You know, Im not from there. I was, I might have been captured there, but I was raised here and I dont know anybody but these people, these are my people. Thats why he stayed and thats why they had contacts that way. And, she went back.

Her Importance

I think in order to understand her role in the expedition, its important to try and think about the wear and tear of the expedition. I mean, when we think about expeditions, especially one that is this long and this extensive, we think of it as this massive journey, of just traveling every day, packing up and moving and going forward and trying to figure out where they were going and how they would get there and what they would eat, and I think in, in the very daily ways, Sacagawea played an important role, not as a guide as shes been thought of, but as a person who could read the landscape fairly well. I think she could read rivers. She could read a valley. She had a sense of what the landscape said, about direction and where they were going. She had some sense of what could be eaten along the way. Apparently she showed Clark how to dig up onions some at some point along the way. She understood, knew about a plant root, which is a root that they ate quite a lot of in the expedition. She was good at looking for food.

 

Sacagawea probably is the most romantic figure of of the expedition, its truly remarkable that this teenager carrying an infant could make so much of the trip. I do think that theres a great deal of love of Sacagawea and idealizing her which has probably distorted her role in the expedition. Clearly, she was able to direct them topographically at certain key moments to help them along and it was it was truly a stroke of luck that when they got on the other side of Lemhi pass and came down the western side of the Continental Divide that she ran into her people again and to her great surprise, her brother was now the chief. Lewis and Clark needed horses at this point, and here is the sister of a tribal leader who can help them get horses. Without those horses, who knows what would have happened to that expedition. That was great luck. But, beyond that, so many of the statues of Sacagawea now, its hard to find in this country a statue of Lewis and Clark but what she wasnt there also, and typically, she has her hand thrust out, pointing the way. I think that happened only occasionally. Perhaps her most important function is one that sometimes we dont realize and that is by carrying a woman along, especially a woman who was carrying an an infant, said to tribes this is not a party that is out for aggressive reasons. This is not a war party. The Corps of Expedition is here doing something other than fighting because in warparties you do not carry a  woman with an infant. So she was a living white flag, so to speak as they moved along. She was a sign of peace, better than anything they could have found.