Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Women of Wednesday: Grass Woman - The Other Sacagawea

Most of us know the story of Sacagawea. She has been part of the historical record ever since Lewis and Clark wrote her name down in their journals. I learned about her in elementary school back in the ‘60's, long before inclusion. She was a woman who stood out, even in the days when nobody noticed, let alone wrote about, women or Native Americans. And if we put aside Disney’s version of Pocohontas, she is, for many of us non natives, the first Native American we ever get to know, simply because she was such an integral part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition which is taught in the classroom.

But there was another Sacagawea, a girl who existed before that expedition and after it, a girl we can only imagine. Her real name was Grass Woman, although she was just a little girl. She was Shoshone, and grew up in the mountains between Idaho and Montana and, in the summer, she would have played tag and others games that all children play. In winter, she and her people would trek down into the valleys, searching out grazing land for their horses and wild game for themselves. Grass Woman would have picked berries and learned to sew, to scrape buffalo hides and turn them into clothing. She would have expected to grow up and meet a handsome man and have children of her own, if she even thought that far ahead, because she was, after all, a little girl.

And then, when she was about eleven, a bad thing happened. Another tribe warred against hers. Warriors rushed in on horses. There was yelling and screaming, guns firing, people and horses dying, and then someone whisked her up on a horse and began riding away. A stranger was taking her away from her mother, her father, her siblings and friends. Everything she knew and was vanished in a moment.

The stranger took her east, riding across the plains to places she had never been, and when he put her down in his village, she realized she was not the only one taken away. Many of her friends had been taken, too. That had to have made things less scary, but still, she must have wondered if she’d ever see her family again. She must have spent many nights crying and thinking about escape or rescue.

She lived among the strangers, who may have been Minatarees, and saw some of her friends escape and others sold. But she adapted to the strangers. She learned their language and their ways. Even as an eleven year old, she must have known that was the way to survive - to get along and not make trouble. She may have also been forced into good behavior. And there she was, growing into her teens, making a new life for herself, perhaps still dreaming of returning home some day, when she was suddenly taken for another horse ride, heading east once again, getting further and further away from home, until she reached the Missouri river and the people known as Mandans.

The Mandans stayed put. They farmed and built homes that couldn’t be rolled up and put on a sledge. What might she have been thinking as she stood there in that strange place and saw herself traded for food or guns or cooking pots? Did she give up her idea of ever returning home, or did the hope linger? Did she console herself with the fact that at least the Mandans wouldn’t be moving her further east? And she hadn’t been sold alone. Her friend Otter Woman, about the same age, was sold along with her, and both were purchased by the same man, so neither girl was totally alone.

It was here that Grass Woman was given her new name. The Mandans called her Sacagawea, or Bird Woman, but she was still not a woman. She was probably in her early or mid teens. Did she hate the Mandans for taking away her name, the last thing she had that connected her to home and family? Was she still Grass Woman in her heart, or had she resigned herself to her fate?

Whatever her feelings, she became Sacagawea and learned to farm and speak as the Mandan spoke, until one day, the man who owned her took her and Otter Woman to a new house. Inside, there was a man. A white man. His name was Toussaint Charbonneau and he spoke a strange language. He was a trapper who had come down from the north, from Canada, and had made his home among the Mandan. She and Otter Woman were given to him. It is unclear if she was sold or lost in a gambling game, but it was evident to her that this strange white man was her new master.

She and Otter Woman served Charbonneau, doing all the work that women do, and eventually, he married both of them. Sacagawea once again adapted and learned her new husband’s languages. In the Winter of 1804, when Lewis and Clark arrived, Sacagawea was about eighteen. She was also pregnant.

As soon as Charbonneau heard about the expedition, he applied for the job of interpreter. He told Lewis and Clark about Sacagawea and all the languages she knew. Lewis and Clark didn’t seem to want Charbonneau at all. Sacagawea was the prize, but then, well, she was a woman, a girl, really, and an expedition was no place for a girl. Besides, she was pregnant. Did they really want an infant along?

After much thought, Sacagawea’s skills as an interpreter outweighed her pregnancy, her sex, and her husband. Lewis and Clark agreed to take them all. By the time the expedition got underway in April,1805, Sacagawea was 18-19, and her child was two months old. Was she happy to be going? After being bought and traded and sold and won for seven long years, did she see this as an opportunity to return home, or was she content in her home with Charbonneau? Did she see the expedition as an adventure, or just something else she had no control over?

The expedition set off and Sacagawea led Lewis and Clark across half a continent - a teenage girl with a baby on her hip. And we know from expedition journals that she was considered a valuable member of the expedition because, when she got sick, she wasn’t left to die. Nor did they leave her behind in the care of someone else. Lewis and Clark saw she was nursed back to health so she could go on with them.

And when they finally reached the Shoshone, was Sacagawea happy at last? According to Clark, she expressed immense joy at being back, and her people were just as happy to have her. And yet, she didn’t stay. She continued on to the Pacific with Lewis and Clark, and stared out into the ocean for perhaps the first time in her life

And then she disappeared. Her name is no longer mentioned in historical records.

Legend says she lived a long life, traveling the west, and on one hand, it seems perfectly plausible. She was obviously intelligent and had a knack for languages. And she certainly knew how to adapt. But it also seems that if that’s who she was, we might have heard a bit more about her.

The other side of the coin is that she was a teenage girl who, for seven of perhaps the most formative years of her life, had been constantly uprooted and forced from one life to another. In seven years, she had been captured, sold, bought, possibly won, married, had a child, and crossed half a continent twice. None of it had been her choice. Did it take a toll on her mind at all?

In 1812, one of Charbonneau’s wives died in the Dakota Territory. The record doesn’t tell us which wife it was. If it was Sacagawea, she would have been only 25-26, a sad, much too early ending for anyone.

I like to believe she lived long and happy, and that she looked back with joy not only on her days as Sacagawea of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but also on her days in the mountains when was Grass Woman of the Shoshone.


Sally said...

Barb, this is a lovely piece. Thank you!

Diane Mayr said...

What a sad, sad, story.

I'm Jet . . . said...

I had no idea. Well written, my friend.

I'm Jet . . . said...
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