go to content

Illustration by BuzzFeed News; Painting by Alfred Russell / Corbis

The Mystery Of Sacagawea

Since aiding Lewis and Clark on their famed 19th-century expedition across the West, this Shoshone heroine has become a symbol for everything from Manifest Destiny to women’s rights to American diversity. Does it matter that we don't seem to know that much about her?

Posted on

If Grace Hebard gave half a damn about the opinions of men, perhaps she would’ve married one. But she never had the time: Since ditching Iowa in 1882 for a pioneer’s life in Wyoming, she had become one of the most renowned scholars in the West. So when U.S. government officials kept rejecting requests for public cash, Hebard simply took matters into her own hands: In the spring of 1933, now in her seventies, Hebard shelled out $150 of her own money to round out a set of three historical markers up the road from Fort Washakie. The center monument honored the gravesite of Sacagawea, the fabled Shoshone interpreter who hiked with Lewis and Clark to the Pacific. The other two were for her sons: one for Bazil, and one for Jean-Baptiste, whose life began as a transcontinental papoose strapped to his mother’s back.

Hebard is the one who blew the Sacagawea story wide open, discovering the Native American guide had been buried right there on the Wind River Indian Reservation. Hebard’s conclusions were amazing: The girl guide apparently lived to be 100 years old. She witnessed years of westward expansion, conquest, ethnic cleansing, and forcible corralling. Hebard even unearthed evidence that Sacagawea eventually reunited with her long-lost Jean-Baptiste, and became a chief among her people until she died in 1884.

That is, if you believe a single word of it. Plenty of historians, members of other tribes, and even some residents of Wind River, say Sacagawea never set foot in Wyoming. She never rejoined her tribe, never got this amazing new life, never even lived long enough to see a Native American reservation. Detractors claim Hebard didn’t even spell her subject’s name right. She used a "J," as in “Sacajawea," while most scholars — and I, as long as we're at it — favor “Sacagawea” with a hard "G." Grace Hebard had engineered a historical fantasy that hoodwinked the country. The old woman buried in that hill by Fort Washakie is not Sacagawea, and the boy to her left is certainly not the transcontinental papoose. And Bazil? Who the heck is Bazil?

One hot morning in May I visited Sacajawea Cemetery, where Hebard’s modest stones have been replaced with much more assertive ones. But a plaque near Sacagawea’s grave had been vandalized. The sentence “The tall granite headstone directly west of this sign is Sacajawea’s burial marker” had been violently edited with a switchblade. The phrase “directly west” had been scratched off — and “EAST” carved in block letters underneath.

Hundreds of miles “EAST,” in fact. Whoever scratched up that plaque is talking about Fort Manuel Lisa, on the border between North and South Dakota. Most researchers have reached the far less romantic conclusion that Sacagawea died there of typhoid fever in 1812, likely buried in an unmarked grave, dead without a name at 25.

An anonymous, premature death is at odds with Sacagawea’s modern-day status as an American icon. She’s inspired lesson plans, picture books, movies, and one-woman shows. In the 2006 megahit Night at the Museum, a life-size Sacagawea figurine is among the exhibit items in the Museum of Natural History that spring to life overnight. As one museum docent squealed, “She literally led these men across rivers, up mountains… She was the ultimate working mother!”

Hillary Clinton had hit similar points in her 1999 address unveiling the golden dollar coin depicting Sacagawea lugging wee Jean-Baptiste. “Even as she cared for her baby, she demonstrated remarkable courage and ingenuity, serving the expedition as an invaluable interpreter and guide … Sacagawea played an unforgettable role in the history of our nation.” For the rollout, coins were widely advertised and hidden in Cheerios boxes, as part of a $40 million marketing campaign and partnership with Wal-Mart and General Mills.

And statues have popped up all over the country. In fact, the National Women's History Museum hazards that there may be more monuments honoring Sacagawea than any other woman in the United States. A bronze statue of her wading into the Pacific, as she might have done on the expedition, stands not far from her Wind River gravesite. You can also find her in Texas, Missouri, and the U.S. Capitol Building (repping North Dakota, not Wyoming). One statue of Lewis, Clark, and a kneeling Sacagawea even sparked protest in 2007, when feminists turned out with signs reading “SACAGAWEA NEVER COWERED.”

But how did Sacagawea become such a beloved American heroine that people literally fight over her bones? She has proven to be a powerful vessel for so many disparate agendas, trotted out as a symbol to endorse Manifest Destiny, champion women’s rights, and gesture toward American diversity. Few American historical figures have reached such iconographic status despite so little being known about them. So how do we know what we do know about Sacagawea? And do we have it right?

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought a massive swath of land, now known as the Louisiana Purchase, off of Napoleon. The deal instantly almost doubled U.S. territory, extending it from the edge of Illinois up through most of Montana, and diagonally down to the lucrative port city of New Orleans. As he later wrote to his successor James Madison, Jefferson envisioned on this land an eventual “empire for liberty,” as if these two things might not be mutually exclusive.

The U.S. government knew little about the land, a rugged blob populated by Native Americans and fur trappers. Jefferson was eager to know what resources could be exploited by his newborn republic. So he sweet-talked Congress into budgeting $2,500 for an expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Northwest and back to explore what, exactly, the country had bought. (Think of it like a two-year episode of Storage Wars.)

Jefferson appointed his personal assistant Meriwether Lewis — a family friend who wasn’t yet 30 — to lead the journey. Lewis invited his old army buddy William Clark to serve as co-captain, and the two assembled a team of a couple dozen explorers to serve under them in the Corps of Discovery. The military party set off in the spring of 1804, with ridiculously ambitious goals: to extend U.S. sovereignty westward, to create an American foothold into the still-technically British Oregon country, to establish trade relationships with tribes, to chart a transcontinental water route to pump up American commerce, and to generate a detailed report of everything they found.

So they journaled to keep close tabs on the people, flora, fauna, and terrain they came across. The combined, unabridged daily logs of the captains and four of their men topped a million words. And an eensy-weensy proportion of them constitute almost the sum total of human knowledge about Sacagawea, whom the men were about to meet.

The Corps of Discovery decided to spend their first winter upstream from Illinois territory, near Hidatsa and Mandan country, in present-day North Dakota. That’s when they met a French-Canadian fur trapper in his forties named Toussaint Charbonneau, whom Lewis once described as “a man of no particular merit.” With him were his two Shoshone “wives”: Otter Woman and Sacagawea, who was probably about six months pregnant. The girls were around 16 years old, and had been sold off to Charbonneau after being kidnapped as children by the Hidatsa as the spoils of intertribal war.

However unimpressive Charbonneau may have been, he, unlike the rest of the corps, spoke passable Hidatsa. Even more crucially, his wives spoke Shoshone — the language of the strategically located tribe the corps would have to rely on for horse trades and guidance over the Rockies. Sacagawea and Charbonneau joined their new co-workers at the finished encampment called Fort Mandan. It speaks to Sacagawea’s intelligence and language skills that she was chosen for the job over his other wife, Otter Woman, even though it would mean bringing a screaming infant along for the ride. Sacagawea gave birth to her healthy baby boy on Feb. 11, 1805. To soothe the intense labor, she guzzled down an elixir made of mashed-up rattlesnake tail.

Fifty-five days later, Sacagawea was famously strapping the kid to her spine for the long walk to Oregon. (So ingrained is our image of the two as a pair that Jean-Baptiste even made it onto his mother’s golden coin.)

Come April, they were off.

So Sacagawea wasn’t exactly a “guide,” as we tend to think of her. But several anecdotes, recorded in the expedition’s 5,000-page account, show how she came in handy.

Like the time, a month into the trip, their canoe got wind-whipped onto its side. Crucial supplies were thrown overboard and would have been lost if it weren’t for Sacagawea, who thought fast and plunged in to save the imperiled cargo. Lewis wrote of his gratitude toward “the Indian woman, to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution, with any person onboard at the time of the accident” — especially when compared with her lousy husband, who let everyone else do the work while “still crying to his god for mercy,” proving himself to be “perhaps the most timid waterman in the world.” (This is how to call someone a “pussy” in the 19th century.)

Months later, right around Three Forks, Montana, the corps bumped into Sacagawea’s own tribe. She bubbled with joy to be reunited with her people, whom she hadn't seen since being snatched during battle as a kid years before. For Lewis, her exuberance upon meeting them was “really affecting.” The tribal elders spoke to her in Shoshone; she relayed their words in Hidatsa to Charbonneau, who put it in French to a corps member named Francois LaBiche, who Englished it back to pretty much everyone else. They negotiated trades for horses, and enlisted the Shoshone to help shepherd the group safely across the Rocky Mountains.

And then there’s everyone’s favorite anecdote about Sacagawea — the one that gets brought up by every historian and every Shoshone I’ve come across. In December of 1805, the Corps of Discovery had hit their halfway point and set up a second winter campsite near the edge of Oregon. After building Fort Clatsop, the corps members caught wind of a scintillating rumor from local tribes: Theres a beached whale carcass washed up on the shore, if you want in on that!

A big dead whale could be a flammable blubber bonanza for a bunch of people who, desperate for protein while crossing the Rockies, had eaten their candles made of animal fat. So right after the new year, Clark announced that he’d peel off with a smaller group to take a short trip to the water, leaving much of the crew — including our leading lady — back at the fort.

But Sacagawea begged to come. As Clark described it, she “was very impatient to be permitted to go with me ... 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 verry hard that She Could not be permitted to See either (She had never yet been to the Ocian).” Side note: That whole paragraph is under a [sic] umbrella. Lewis and Clark were pretty lousy spellers.

And, dang, Clark. Of course she wanted to go. She had just taken an eight-month postpartum hike with a bunch of dudes twice her age while breastfeeding a newborn. She didn’t come here to play an entire game of solitaire and not watch the cards dance down.

It was the most assertive she ever gets in the journals, and it paid off. She was allowed to join the trip to the beach — which yielded a 300-pound blubber haul — and got to see a 105-foot-long whale skeleton sprawled against the vast Pacific. That March, in 1806, the crew began their long trip back home. Jean-Baptiste had turned 1, and he boosted the men’s morale by bouncing around in the firelight. The tyke had grown especially on Clark, who’d nicknamed him “Pomp” and wrote lovingly of “my little dancing boy.” On July 25, Clark carved his signature into a natural rock formation in Montana that he dubbed “Pompy’s Tower,” now called Pompeys Pillar, literally setting his affection into stone.

By August, the crew had returned Fort Mandan, where they’d spent that first winter in North Dakota. The members said goodbye to Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Jean-Baptiste as the family returned to Hidatsa country. For his services to the mission as interpreter, Charbonneau was paid $500 and 33 and 1/3 cents. Sacagawea got nothing.

After squaring up, the rest of the corps continued down the Missouri River. But Clark immediately regretted leaving the Charbonneau family behind. En route to St. Louis, Clark sent Charbonneau a letter that made a significant promise: If Charbonneau, Sacagawea, and Pomp came south to live in St. Louis, Clark would set them up with some land and a first-rate education for Pomp. “You know well my fondness for [your boy] and my anxiety to take and raise him as my own child,” Clark wrote. Three years later, the family would accept the invite and join Clark down the Missouri.

News of the expedition’s success was an instantaneous media sensation for the time. Jefferson really milked the political victory the success had earned him, and Lewis and Clark were lauded as heroes. Edited and abridged (thank god) versions of the expedition journals were published shortly after the trip. Historians latched onto the American Odyssey as soon as their boots hit the dock.

But none of them wrote about Sacagawea. Not for nearly 100 years.

Sometime around 1900, a woman named Eva Emery Dye was on the hunt for a heroine. Dye was an amateur historian who served as chair of her local chapter of the Oregon Equal Suffrage Association. At the time, many women’s rights activists focused on highlighting women’s overlooked contributions to the country’s past as a way to show that their voting rights were long overdue. So Dye began retracing women’s steps over the historical record to find a worthy protagonist.

And did she ever find one! In 1902, Dye published a sensational book. The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark introduced an intriguing new character into an already well-known American epic, performing feats that only a woman could. Years later, Dye described how she made Sacagawea a star: “I traced down every old book and scrap of paper. ... Finally, I came upon the name of Sacajawea and I screamed, ‘I have found my heroine.’ I then hunted up every fact I could find about Sacajawea. Out of a few dry bones I found in the old tales of the trip I created Sacajawea and made her a real living entity. For months I dug and scraped for accurate information about this wonderful Indian maid. The world snatched at my heroine, Sacajawea. ... The beauty of that faithful Indian woman with her baby on her back, leading those stalwart mountaineers and explorers through the strange land, appealed to the world.”

Dye’s timing was just right. Plans were already underway for the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in 1905, a world fair that would put Portland, Oregon, on the map. That summer and fall, nearly 1.6 million visitors turned up to commemorate the Corps of Discovery’s legendary trek across the uncharted wilderness.

The suffragettes were not about to blow this chance. A coalition of women’s organizations crowdfunded a monument to Sacagawea to be presented at the exposition. Seven thousand dollars and one statue later, an unveiling was held on July 6, 1905. Susan B. Anthony gave the opening address. “The recognition of the great assistance rendered by [Sacagawea] is but the beginning of the work to be done here,” Anthony said. “Next year the men of this proud state ... will decide whether women should at last have the right in it which they have been denied them so many years.”

In this way, turn-of-the-century white progressives reappropriated Sacagawea for their own rose-colored history. Now the glory of American expansion belonged to women, too! But many still wondered: What happened to this newly minted American patriot after the expedition?

Grace Hebard decided to pick up the story where Dye left off. Hebard was an established academic in her early forties when reading The Conquest changed her life. Like Dye, Hebard had also been an active campaigner for women’s suffrage. The cause was a no-brainer, given Hebard’s membership in so many boys clubs: She was among the first women to serve on the University of Wyoming’s board of trustees, as well as the first woman admitted to the Wyoming state bar.

So it’s no surprise that Hebard felt an affinity for Sacagawea, another woman who held her own among men. In 1904, Hebard traveled from Cheyenne to the Wind River Reservation, to probe the Shoshones about their famous ancestor. The tribe had been resettled there in 1868 on a reservation created through a now famous treaty between U.S. troops and Shoshone Chief Washakie. By preempting the humiliating and violent defeat on the battlefield that had befallen so many tribes before his, Chief Washakie was granted his top reservation choice: the breathtaking Wind River Valley. (Alas, experts have since argued that Hebard’s assumption that Sacagawea’s descendants must be at Wind River was based on a flawed premise; most Lemhi Shoshones from around Idaho, like Sacagawea, were resettled farther west.)

Hebard began her quest at Wind River by consulting Rev. John Roberts, an Episcopal missionary who’d lived on the rez for over 20 years. She wanted to know if he’d ever heard any chatter about the Shoshone superwoman who’d hiked a round trip to the Pacific with a baby on her back. Surely the people around here would remember someone like that, right? Did "Sacagawea" ring a bell?

At first, Roberts didn’t recall much about the century-old chief woman locals called "Bazil’s mother." Somehow, Hebard jogged John Roberts' memory of an old, old woman whose funeral he presided over two decades earlier. Perhaps his epiphany was sparked by Hebard’s persistent goading, or by a communication error when he followed up with the Shoshone. Either way, Roberts soon concluded that Bazil’s mother and Sacagawea were one and the same — the woman whose funeral he officiated in 1884 had been the very woman who led Lewis and Clark.

“There are several of her descendants living on this reservation,” Roberts confirmed to Hebard in 1905. “A son of Baptiste told me that his father often told him that his mother carried him when a baby on her back when she showed the way to … the big water toward the setting sun. ... The old lady was wonderfully active and intelligent, considering her age. She walked alone and was bright to the last.”

Still, other testimonies began piling up around Wind River about the so-called Wadze-wipe, or “lost woman,” who’d returned to her people after decades of wandering. Hebard continued gathering evidence for years that the woman Roberts remembered was indeed Sacagawea, and the contours of an incredible life began to emerge: After passing several years with her family in St. Louis, Sacagawea finally escaped her abusive, sack-of-crap husband for good.

Legend had it that sometime around 1823, she left the teenage Jean-Baptiste in the care of his honorary godfather William Clark. Then she booked it from St. Louis back to Shoshone country, and apparently started a new life that would span across several states. At first, Sacagawea resettled with the Comanches in Oklahoma. They began calling her “Paraivo,” or "Chief Woman," as a nod to her accomplishments. Natives recalled her marrying a Comanche man named Jirk Meat, having more kids, and coasting peacefully for decades, until Jirk was killed in a battle.

Alone again and pushing 60, Sacagawea apparently left the Comanches and struck out on her own, happily settling in Wind River, with two long-lost sons by her side.

Grace Hebard first published her alternate narrative in the Journal of American History in 1907, hot off the expedition’s centennial and all the enthusiasm that came with it. Newspapers across the state jumped on the story, psyched to claim the “Pocahontas of the 19th Century” as a daughter of Wyoming.

Hebard's account went largely unchallenged for over a decade, though it felt at odds with several eyewitness accounts of her flailing health. For one thing, Sacagawea had suffered a near-death illness during the expedition itself. And later, in 1811, a tourist named Henry Brackenridge traveling up the Missouri journaled about meeting a man named Charbonneau and his “sickly” wife. Still, it’s tough to discredit a given theory, if you have no proof of anything better. So the sensational Wyoming version held strong until 1920, when Hebard’s narrative began to fall apart. Another handwritten journal surfaced, this one kept by a clerk named John Luttig and staffed by the very fur company that frequently contracted Charbonneau. On Dec. 20, 1812, Luttig wrote: “this evening the wife of Charbonneau a Snake Squaw, died of a putrid fever she was a good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years…” (The seemingly harsh “Snake Squaw” label was a colloquial reference to the Shoshone tribe.)

For many, these two clues in combination were as close to a checkmate as you can get. Brackenridge had pegged Charbonneau’s sick wife floating up the Missouri in 1811, and here she was dying in Luttig’s log a year later, right where the boat left off. Ergo, Sacagawea would’ve been buried in 1812, somewhere near Fort Manuel Lisa. Ergo, she couldn't have also been buried 72 years later in Wyoming.

Confronted with this evidence, Dr. Hebard offered an explanation: Neither Brackenridge nor Luttig had used the name “Sacagawea.” So it must’ve been Charbonneau’s other wife Otter Woman, not Sacagawea, who was on that upriver boat, and who succumbed to putrid fever soon after. So actually, Hebard concluded, these unearthed journals prove nothing about Sacagawea herself, who was still miles away in St. Louis when they were written!

Predictably, many people were unsatisfied by Hebard’s all-too-convenient wife swap. But Hebard doubled down. No way would she let years of work be undone by a pair of smelly old journals written by random dead men who couldn't tell one woman from another. Hebard soon began building a paper trail of her own. She reinterviewed and found even more Shoshone sources in the 1920s, and began recording their testimonies.

Indeed, person after person confirmed what Hebard had claimed before: Sacagawea died at Wind River in 1884. Some elders had met Paraivo personally, others repeated recollections of deceased relatives. They told Hebard stories similar to the ones their descendants told me, when I visited Wind River in 2015. I heard about the pretty medal she wore, a token from the mission captains. I heard how it flopped to the side of her neck as she was being prepared for burial, and that she’d bet it in poker games as long as she knew she’d win it back. And I heard how much she loved seeing the sea, and how crazy other Natives thought she was when she talked about the whale on the Oregon beach: “The fish as big as a house!”

As Hebard worked to gather more accounts, the Sacagawea controversy was covered by the New York Times and the Associated Press. The Bureau of Indian Affairs dispatched investigator Charles Eastman to Wind River to settle the matter. She really did die in 1884, he determined. The reservation is full of her descendants. They remember her well.

Yet Eastman’s conclusion wasn’t exactly independent — he corresponded with Hebard, who may have even helped him with his research. Still, his report was the confirmation that Hebard needed. The Wind River theory was now corroborated by the U.S. government. Hebard moved forward with her grave markers, and at last published Sacajawea: Guide and Interpreter of Lewis and Clark, putting together half a lifetime of work.

But the single most powerful piece of evidence against the Wind River theory was yet to come.

In 1955, two decades after Hebard’s death, a collection of papers were acquired by the Newberry Library in Chicago. Among them was a little note Clark had scribbled on a cash book that spanned from 1825 to 1828. On a “Where Are They Now?” list of the expedition members, Clark listed “Se-car-ja-weau” as “Dead.”

For Donald Jackson, the mid-century’s preeminent authority on all things Lewis and Clark, that settled that. It was one thing to assume third-party observers could garble the facts, but Clark never would. Some dissenters have argued that Clark was mistaken: After all, he marked Patrick Gass as dead on the same list, when he actually outlived them all! But whereas Clark had lost touch with Gass, he had done the opposite with Sacagawea. They lived as neighbors for years in St. Louis, and Clark adored her son. (Pomp was listed too — he was a grown man in Germany, getting the European education his adoptive father figure had promised him.)

But other Wind River proponents agree that Clark must’ve known the truth about Sacagawea. I asked Ramona Cameron Worley, an amateur historian who spent years compiling research that supports the Wind River version, what she makes of Clark’s note. “He did it to protect her,” Worley said. He knew she’d escaped an abusive husband, she reminded me, and wanted to grant her some peace to leave white society on her own terms. So he lied to cover for her and kept her secret to himself.

I really love the way that story feels. I do. Like Hebard and Worley, I love the idea that Sacagawea got hers and lived a life free of white meddling. I love the idea that instead of dying at Fort Manuel, she lived, and lived, and lived. But…the simplest explanation is usually the best. And who would've even been looking at his stupid cash book?

If the majority of historians are right, and Sacagawea really did die in 1812, then it raises the obvious question: What do we make of Grace Hebard?

Thomas Johnson is an anthropologist who did years of fieldwork at Wind River. His book Also Called Sacajawea: Chief Womans Stolen Identity is perhaps the most thorough debunking of Hebard’s work ever produced. So did he think Hebard was a liar? A careerist? A dupe? A dope?

“My wife and I speculated about this after we did our archival work in Laramie,” Johnson told me over the phone. The two of them had trudged through Hebard’s extensive personal papers side by side. They were struck by how lonely Hebard must have been — she’d lost her mother and sister just a few years apart, and was getting older herself by the time she found Sacagawea. So she poured everything she had into her work. The Johnsons don’t think she maliciously falsified anything, exactly. She just wanted very badly for this to be true. “I think she kinda had a crush on Sacagawea, this young woman who did heroic things!” Johnson said. “I think she just identified with her, to the point where she couldn’t give it up.”

And so she spent half her life desperately trying to turn Paraivo into Sacagawea. Perhaps it was a sort of insistence on cosmic justice. Sacagawea deserved so much more than a premature, anonymous death. Hebard gave her the power to reclaim her own life, lead her community, and watch her sons grow old. History was already so heavy with women’s sorrow — wasn’t Hebard’s narrative closer to what their stories should be?

But, if Hebard had been driven by wishful thinking, hadn't the Shoshone been too? Why were they so eager to believe that Sacagawea and Paraivo — “Bazil’s mother,” as she had been known — were one and the same?

For Johnson, the answer seems obvious in context. Like most treaties the U.S. negotiated with Native American nations, the Shoshones’ exclusive dominion over Wind River didn’t last. Over the years, the federal government repeatedly broke the promises it made to Chief Washakie. Since its founding, the reservation had been chopped in half, and divvied up to white settlers and the Arapaho tribe, ancestral rivals of the Shoshone. After decades of humiliation, could the Shoshones have seen Sacagawea as a bargaining chip?

“So here comes this important white woman from the University of Wyoming,” Johnson told me. “They knew that white people were powerful. She comes up and interviews all these people, and anoints them as descendants of Sacagawea. And they think, Gee, this white woman might be speaking the truth!

He suggests that Paraivo's actual experiences as remembered by those at Wind River had mingled with the rumors that she was Sacagawea for many years by the time Hebard was collecting much of her testimony. From there, Johnson believes, the legend seeped into local folklore. “She became a source of pride, a way to connect to the white power structure. Because they needed as much power as they could get — the government had complete control over their lives. Maybe they wanted someone like Sacagawea to let the government know, ‘We still have grievances against you … maybe the fact that Sacagawea is from us means that you owe us.'”

It’s that tension that makes the Sacagawea mythos so fascinating in the first place. American history has always been a selective hybrid of fact and mythology. But there is something particularly disturbing about Sacagawea’s role in our patriotic narrative: She is celebrated for ensuring the success of an expedition that set off the shameful annihilation of Native Americans and their cultures in the West. By declaring U.S. authority across the continent, the Corps of Discovery paved the way for brutal resettlement, disenfranchisement, and cultural decimation. As Gerard Baker, a Mandan-Hidatsa Indian and the first superintendent of the Lewis and Clark National Trail, put it, “What happened to our people in the years after Lewis and Clark is that we went downhill. In a nutshell, we lost…it was the beginning of an end.”

Of course, none of this was Sacagawea’s fault. She really was brilliant and capable, even as she was abused, enslaved, and robbed of her girlhood. She never invited us into her life. We inserted ourselves into hers.

When and where Sacagawea died are ultimately less important than why people care so much. History is largely about the dead, but it’s for the living. And whether or not she died at Wind River in 1884, she certainly lives there now.

Today, Wind River’s Shoshone Tribal Cultural Center sits next to the school and the library. Its displays about Chief Washakie and Sacagawea are featured side by side. You can look at the only known photo of old Paraivo, taken just before she died in 1884. She has wild, white hair, and is wrapped up in a blanket, looking wrinkled and dried but somehow full of spunk. Her granddaughter and two great-granddaughters stand by her side. Whoever she was, she was no longer lost.

I asked Zedora Enos, who wears many hats at the center, what Sacagawea means to her tribe. The U.S. government has broken even more promises since Hebard’s time, and Native American communities continue to be marginalized and impoverished. The Lewis and Clark expedition — irrevocably tied to the imperialist notion of Manifest Destiny — has come to be less celebrated among historians looking to be more transparent about America’s sins.

“I want to make others understand that we see Sacagawea as a strong, smart person,” Enos told me. “Maybe she didn't have a choice, maybe she was just trying to help — because that’s the nature of Native Americans.”

Today’s Shoshones know something that Sacagawea and Chief Washakie didn’t: American history is not a story of giving, but of taking. But despite a centuries-long onslaught, tribal nations are still here: the defiant survivors of an invading empire. “Why do you think they’re called ‘reservations'?” Enos asked me. “They’re only ‘reserving’ the land for us. But if we stay one step ahead of them, they’re not going to take it. They’re not going to take our water, they’re not going to take our oil, they’re not going to take our gas like they’ve taken everything else. They gave us our land and called it 'a reserve.' But we reserved it for ourselves, and we’re not going to let anybody take it.”

That’s why they need education, Enos said. Wind River needs engineers, lawyers, and teachers. It’s a matter of community preservation. The tribe just established a scholarship for students who plan to come back to their tribe, just like Wadze-wipe.

Enos continued with force: “She’s telling us: You need to get off the reservation. Go. Learn something, and see what’s out there.” She gestured toward the door, and the fraught, cherished, despicable country behind it.

“But then ... you need to come back,” Enos added. “And that’s what Sacagawea did.”


Also read:

The Showdown Over Billy the Kid

The Making Of John Wayne


Natalie Shure is a writer and comedian in New York.

Contact Natalie Shure at natalie.shure@gmail.com.

Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.