Creating Sakakawea, Return to Index Go To Themes Go To Images Go To Resources

Sakakawea wrote nothing herself. She was almost certainly illiterate. The cultures that shaped her were still entirely mediated by oral rather than written traditions. Had Sakakawea recorded her own history it seems certain that our understanding of her would be significantly, perhaps fundamentally, different. It is not even certain that Sakakawea is the name by which she would have chosen to call herself. The journal keepers of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, five of whose journals are extant for the Sakakawea phase of the expedition, did not routinely report her activities. Sakakawea got noticed when she fed the expedition, when she became ill, when she nearly drowned, when her beads were needed for an economic transaction, when she showed extraordinary resourcefulness in a boat accident, and when she interpreted among her people the Shoshone. She was mentioned substantively only a handful of times in the journals. No journal keeper ever paused to describe her physique, the quality of her face, her posture, her clothing, her parenting style, her attitude toward Charbonneau, or her location in the daily dynamics of the boats and the camps. The only extant remark about Sakakawea’s physical appearance is in Biddle’s post-expeditionary notes from communications with Clark and George Shannon. Biddle reported that of Charbonneau’s two Indian wives, Sakakawea was lighter skinned. Nothing more.

We have only one indirect quotation from Sakakawea, reported by Meriwether Lewis. When the expedition learned of a whale beached southwest of Fort Clatsop and assembled a team to visit the carcass and salvage whatever might be useful, Sakakawea and Charbonneau were not originally chose to make the journey. But Sakakawea mounted a protest. On January 6, 1806, Meriwether Lewis wrote, “the Indian woman was very importunate to be permited to go, and was therefore indulged; she observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters, and that now that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard she could not be permitted to see either (she had never yet been to the Ocean).” Sakakawea was granted permission to visit the whale. Her reaction was not recorded.