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Sacajawea: Her True Story, Book Review Example

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Book Review

Sacajawea, is one of the most admired and honored women in American history, a Shoshone Indian woman who played a prominent role in the early expansionism of the United States. There are countless lakes, rivers, parks, and other tributes named for her, perhaps the most significant of which was creating a coin bearing her image released by the Mint of the United States Government. This paper will review the book Sacajawea: Her True Story, written by Rich Haney, which seeks to correct the record regarding her burial site and other details of her life and death; in addition, it will discuss the reasons for her notoriety and rightful position in the history of the United States.

As Haney explains, Sacajawea was best known for serving as an interpreter on the Lewis and Clark expedition, allowing the explorers to learn how to navigate their path safely in order to survive and accomplish their goals to travel across the new country.  He focuses specifically on disputes regarding where Sacajawea died and was buried, expressing some outrage towards many white historians, including Ken Burns, for wrongly reporting her death and burial as having occurred in South Dakota rather than Wyoming (Haney.)  The debate involves whether she died in 1812 in South Dakota or in 1884 in Wyoming.  Mr. Haney expresses irritation and outright contempt towards those who believe that Sacajawea died anywhere but on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming in 1884, where she is buried.  The tone of the book is interesting because he clearly takes these historical contradictions extremely personally, using words such as “ridiculous,” “shameful,” and even “stupid” to describe documentarians and historians who have differed from his point of view.  The result is that the book sounds a bit amateurish rather than scholarly, as Mr. Haney is clearly devoted to the subject of Sacajawea and wishes to promote her rightful place in American history but becomes rather bogged down in raging against those who he believes have dishonored the memory of Sacajawea by misrepresenting the facts.

Nevertheless, although the book is a fictionalized account of Sacajawea’s life and travels, the significance of her role in the Lewis and Clark expedition cannot be minimized.  She served as a translator, diplomat, explorer, and navigator, preventing the Lewis and Clark expedition from meeting catastrophe on many occasions.  The daughter of a Shoshone chief, Sacajawea was born in approximately 1788 in Idaho, but by the age of 12 she was captured by a rival Indian tribe and sold to a French Canadian trapper who made her his wife (Sacajawea Biography.) Haney delves into the 19th century preoccupation with expanding the American frontier, culminating in the sale of the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. This transaction occurred between Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson and doubled the size of the United States. Immediately following this tremendous expansion, Jefferson developed an exploratory expedition that would examine this boundless and uncharted territory. He named Lewis and Clark to conduct the expedition, which originated from St. Louis in May, 1804. As Haney describes it, at the same time that this had occurred, Sacajawea was being kidnapped and sold as a slave, like so many Shoshone girls, and would eventually go on to fulfill her role as one of the leading women in American history.

In his book, Haney addresses the ambivalence that exists within Native American communities regarding Sacajawea and her contributions to the white world: did she “sell out” her Native American roots by cooperating with, and indeed becoming romantically involved with the white men with whom she traveled? Or by playing such a prominent role, did she enhance the status of Native American women by demonstrating how talented, intelligent, skillful, and prominent a role they played in the early establishment of the United States? Haney is of the latter opinion, minimizing the attitudes of Native Americans who did not appreciate Sacajawea’s enabling of US expansionism. Haney describes the ways in which Sacajawea proudly wore remnants from the expedition, obviously placing great value on her role in the expedition as well as her attachment to Lewis and Clark personally, but makes the point that this did not gain her real status among her own people.

Haney chronicles details about the ways in which Sacajawea was able to go out at night to dig up edible roots, and pull artichokes from gopher holes, happily sharing such nutritious foods with the men with whom she traveled, unselfishly giving them away before she herself ate anything. This fictionalized account of the day to day interactions between Sacajawea and the explorers had the feel of a novel, and was presented with much repetition and drama. I was puzzled about the tone of the book, its informality and lack of factual narration but when I reread the background of Haney, and learned that he is a sportscaster, the way the book was written made more sense to me because sports broadcasting involves much repetition, hyperbole, and dramatic emphasis. Haney was on a mission to preserve the reputation and importance of Sacajawea, despite the fact that no literature that I have come across seriously questions her significance and relevant role in the Lewis and Clark expedition.

What little is actually known about the facts regarding Sacajawea’s role in that excursion has primarily come from the journals of Lewis and Clark themselves (Marks.) Although she was not mentioned often in those books, when her name comes up it is in reference to her compassion and usefulness to the team; although she was certainly not indispensable, she made the journey easier for the men, keeping up morale and strengthening the men’s resolve. It is relevant to know that Sacajawea’s participation in the expedition occurred by accident: she did not choose to go along, but rather was taken on by Lewis and Clark as an interpreter in order to ensure that they can get the horses that they would need from the Shoshone Indian tribe. She could speak both Shoshone as well as other Indian dialects; she also learned English and French, allowing communication to flow between the explorers and the Native Americans. Sacajawea played a central role in the meetings with the Indian chiefs, and was generally referred to as “a wife to one of the interpreters” (Marks.) A central role that she held during the Lewis and Clark expedition was that of guide: she was able to lead the men through areas with which she was familiar in ways that ensured their safe passage.

It is easy to understand why history has tended to idealize and romanticize Sacajawea; on the expedition, she was a pregnant teenager, yet she was able to perform the same tasks that the 30 other participants on the expedition did. The others were mature military men who were accustomed to engaging in backbreaking work, long days and nights and traveling under rough conditions, likely in great contrast to the life Sacajawea had lived prior to her traveling with them. When she joined the expedition, she was six months pregnant and following a painful delivery was able to bring her infant son with her across the country on the journey (Marks.) Since this was believed to be her first birth, at the age of 16 she experienced a difficult and long labor and then carried her son on her back for the duration of the trip, adding to her mystique has an unusual, crucial figure representing strength as well as motherhood (Marks.) In addition, along with the other people on the expedition she suffered from illnesses and injuries.

Nevertheless, through their journals Lewis and Clark appeared to view Sacajawea in a simplistic manner, suggesting that as long as she had enough to eat, and a few trinkets, she was likely to feel content with her situation. There was virtually no contemplation of the social and emotional upheaval that she must have experienced being uprooted at a young age, given away in marriage as a child, forced to live with a completely foreign group of men, and being forced to abandon the culture and environment from which she had been torn.

It is interesting to speculate about the reasons that Sacajawea holds so much interest for people today, despite the fact that many people believe that her role in the Lewis and Clark expedition was exaggerated and was notable simply because she was the one Native American female on the trip. People are frequently looking for role models, particularly strong women who can serve as symbols of strength, survival, and perseverance despite unfathomable odds. For many of those people, Sacajawea fits the bill. For Native Americans, however, Sacajawea has had a more ambivalent reputation because on one hand, she became involved with white people and helping them succeed in expanding their territory; on the other hand, there is little doubt that the strengths and gifts that she reportedly contributed to the Lewis and Clark expedition is a reflection of the extraordinary abilities of survival developed by Native Americans, no matter who benefited from those gifts.

Works Cited:

Haney, Rich. Sacajawea: Her True Story. Washington DC: Library Of Congress, 1999.

Marks, Lyra. “Sacajawea As An Evolving Symbol of Indian American Women.” Mathcs. 24 October 2012 <http://www.mathcs.bethel.edu/~gossett/DiscreteMathWithProof/sacajawea/sacajawea.html>

“Sacajawea Biography.” 2012. A & E Networks. 24 October 2012 <http://www.biography.com/people/sacagawea-9468731>.

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