Mossett sheds light on the real Sacagawea


ILWACO - Just who was Sacagawea? She wasn't the woman Donna Reed portrayed in the 1955 flick "The Far Horizons," or the woman into whose eyes William Clark lovingly smiled in Anna Lee Waldo's novel "Sacajawea."

On that the panelists of the "Hollywood vs. History" talk Sunday could agree.

But although she is one of this country's iconic figures, little is known for sure about Sacagawea, who with her husband and baby joined the Lewis and Clark expedition for their journey across the Rockies and down the Columbia River. Her heritage, legacy and the myths that surround her, were the subject of a panel presentation in the weekend's "Ocian in View" program.

"We know there's a great deal of uncertainty that surrounds Sacagawea's life," said Amy Mossett, a Mandan/Hidatsa tribal member who studies and gives presentations on Sacagawea.

But there are some beliefs about the woman that Mossett strongly holds, she said, including the idea that Sacagawea wasn't a slave but a war captive taken by the Hidatsa tribe.

"It's not right to lump Sacagawea in with York or Sally Hemings," Mossett said, because she wasn't an outsider in her home but absorbed into her new tribe: "We helped shape the person that she became."

Mossett said that although people have molded Sacagawea into whatever they want her to be, when she thinks of Sacagawea, she is "reminded to be strong, brave and willing to step outside of my own cultural comfort zone."

Sacagawea was born into the Shoshone tribe, and the way she is presented is still very important to the Shoshone people, said Rod Ariwite, a Lemhi Shoshone who is a direct descendant of Sacagawea's brother Cameahwaite. It's hard to know how much of what's written about her in the journals of white men is the truth, and how much is assumptions, he said.

The Lemhi Shoshones have a sad history, he said, which involved treaties that were never ratified and lands that were taken away from the tribes.

"We as Lemhi people, when we saw our homeland taken away from us, it took away our dignities, it took away our lives," Ariwite said, later adding that "The removal leaves us with a sense of abandonment; this country has forgotten who we are, what we have done." He said that he hopes that after the bicentennial, the Lemhi's can regain their land in the Lemhi Valley of Idaho.

Panelist Donna Kessler Barbie, a social scientist at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., took on the task of examining the legend that surrounds Sacagawea, and the ability of her story to suit whoever is telling it.

Sacagawea's story and the myths that surround it reinforce the sacred Euro-American myth of manifest destiny, Barbie said. God put this country here for the colonists to take, the myth goes, and American Indians fit into one of two categories - the ignoble and howling savages or the noble savage that had to be moved for the good of civilization, Barbie said.

Within the latter category, Sacagawea joined Pochohontas as examples of the Indian Princess, caught between two cultures and defined by her relationship with white men.

"The books have all been written by white men, who understood the world through their own lens of time and place and milieu," Barbie said.

But women picked up the Sacagawea myth as well - in 1902, the suffragette Eva Emory Dye wrote about her in "The Conquest" as someone for American women to emulate, with an idealized femininity but also with power and determination.

Since the closest scholars can get to primary documents about Sacagawea are the expedition's journals, the best we can do is take "a series of imaginary leaps to try and understand," said Robert Carriker, a professor at Gonzaga University in Spokane. And perhaps, he added, we shouldn't take too many of those leaps, since there have been many untruths spread about Sacagawea, including that she was a slave or was the expedition's sole guide or was born near Laguna Beach, Calif.

Instead, Carriker said, he admires her simply as a student.

"I like her because she's open to new experiences," he said. "She's my model student." She took part in this expedition, and whoever else she was, he said, "She was there to learn at the side of her companions on the journey of a lifetime. That's the woman I admire."

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