Sacajawea was an essential member of the expedition to discover routes through the North American West to the Pacific Ocean. Both Native American legend and journals from the Lewis and Clark expedition reference her important contribution.
Sacajawea (Sacagawea/Sakakawea/Sacajewea), which translates in Hidatsa to "Bird Woman," was born to the Shoshone Tribe in Idaho. Kidnapped at the age of 12 by the Hidatsa Tribe, a rival Native American group, she was then sold into slavery and forced to marry the French Canadian fur trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, who also claimed one other Shoshone woman as his "wife."
In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark recruited Charbonneau to serve as a wilderness guide on their famous expedition, which began in St. Louis, Missouri. Though only sixteen years old and pregnant, Sacajawea accompanied Charbonneau; she was the only woman on the expedition. According to Clark's journals, Sacajawea was one of the most valuable members of the group. She spoke both Shoshone and Hidatsa and served as interpreter for the group of white men, who frequently encountered resistance from many Native American tribes. When these tribes saw the group traveling with a woman and child, they determined it was a peaceful mission, as women were not considered to be warriors.
Though it was her husband who was chosen for his trapping experience and knowledge of the rural western geography, Sacajawea proved the most useful to the expedition, as she was knowledgeable about food sources and the Yellowstone area. During the journey, she was reunited with her Shoshone brother, and with his help the group was able to survive a winter and obtain horses. Though she made the trip with an infant strapped to her back, she was recognized throughout Clark's journal as one of the bravest members of the expedition. When her boat was overturned during a squall, Sacajawea maneuvered a white-capped waterway, simultaneously collecting the maps and materials that had been thrown from the boat, while keeping both herself and her infant son from drowning.
Unlike the men, Sacajawea did not receive payment for her assistance in the expedition, which ended in 1806, despite her role in helping the group return safely. In 1809, William Clark invited Sacajawea and her family to live in St. Louis, later adopting her son, Jean Baptiste, and an infant daughter, Lisette. Though it is known that she separated from the abusive Charbonneau, little else is certain about the remainder of Sacajawea's life. Most Native people believe she died in 1812 at Fort Mandan and is buried somewhere on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation lands, North Dakota, while some evidence states that she lived with the Shoshone tribe for many years afterwards.
The circumstances surrounding her life have become the stuff of legend, prompting interpretation by historians, writers, and filmmakers. In an era in which women, particularly Native American women, were considered either weak and helpless or dangerous, Sacajawea proved to be an icon of bravery and adventure amongst men who were renowned for such traits. Sacajawea is now one of the most well-known and respected Native American women in history. She stands not only as a symbol of the strength of Native American women, but as an emblem of the tenacity and power of all women.
As the only Native American woman to be represented in The Dinner Party, Chicago chose to honor Sacajawea through the highly skilled artistic and cultural traditions of the Shoshone tribe. Linear patterns are used throughout the place setting as Shoshone women created abstract geometric art, while the men created the pictographic work.
The palette used in the plate—yellow, ochre, blue, and lavender—references the colors the Shoshone made with vegetable dyes. The geometric, linear design is patterned on the parafleche or rawhide paintings traditionally done by Sacajawea's tribe. Chicago "tried to create a feeling of an authentic Native American design, incorporating both the butterfly and triangle, which appear in Native American iconography and are used repeatedly in The Dinner Party" (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 205). A beaded cradleboard and hood are attached to the top of the plate, which references Sacajawea's leading the expedition with her infant son on her back.
The runner, designed after of the art of the Plains Indians, is constructed of hand-tanned deerskins. The skin's edges are bordered with strips of beading, made with almost 40,000 opaque seed beads (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 207). The pattern is based on traditional Shoshone motifs, particularly those used to adorn dresses.
Sacajawea's name was embroidered on fabric under the deerskin; it is visible through an asymmetrical cutout. The intricate beading around the illuminated letter "S" references the meaning of her name in Hidatsa, "Birdwoman."
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Journals of Lewis and Clark. 30 vols., 1803–06. Archived at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Howard, Harold P. Sacajawea. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.
Josephy, Alvin M. Jr. Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
Kessler, Donna J. The Making of Sacagawea: A Euro-American Legend. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama Press, 1996.
Mann, John W. W. Sacajawea's People : The Lemhi Shoshones and the Salmon River Country. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
Moulton, Gary E., ed. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. 11 vols. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1983–2003.
Nelson, W. Dale. Interpreters with Lewis and Clark: The Story of Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau. Denton, Tex.: University of North Texas Press, 2003.
Peters, Virginia Bergman. Women of the Earth Lodges: Tribal Life on the Plains. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000.
Ronda, James P. Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.
Slaughter, Thomas P. Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men and Wilderness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.
Thwaites, Reuben G., ed. Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–1806. 8 vols. New York: Dodd & Mead, 1904–05.
Online text of the Moulton edition of the Lewis and Clark journals
PBS documentaries—The West: Sacajawea (2001)
Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition
Sacajawea and the Lemhi-Shoshone
Women in the Shoshone Tribe
The Sacajawea Study Center in Lemhi, Idaho