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Sacajawea, An Unlikely Heroine of the American West

Explorations near Salmon, Idaho

Imagine being a very young child raised by loving parents, suddenly snatched from your mother’s arms to new life among sworn enemies. Imagine losing contact with all you’ve ever known–torn from peace into a harsh and lonely life among Hidatsa captors, the years of hardship only ending when as a young woman you’re sold to a stranger as the prize in a game of cards.

From Captive to Heroine

Kidnapped from her Shoshone childhood Sacajawea became a slave in the Dakotas worth only what her labor bought. Tears would not move her captors’ hearts. Remember, Readers, what you were told of Sacajawea and know that you only learned the smallest part of her remarkable story; she was so much more than an Indian guide and so completely the reason Lewis and Clark survived to succeed in their Discovery Expedition!

Birthplace of Sacajawea

In August 2013 we landed our Husky in Salmon, Idaho. There are still places where you can expect a friendly welcome in the midst of strangers. Pilots in general aviation find generosity everywhere. No matter how big or small the airport, it’s typical to have a comfortable place to rest, a computer terminal, snacks, kindly advice, and most often the use of a free loaner car with a full tank of gas. In Salmon that loaner car took us into the countryside to discover the real Sacajawea, an unlikely heroine of the American west.

Salmon Idyll

Sacajawea Interpretive Center

The Sacajawea Interpretive Center outside of Salmon tells of her capture and then shows you what her native Shoshone culture (known among themselves as the Agaidika, the salmon eaters) was like. You learn that the stranger Toussaint Charboneau who bought her became her great rescuer, making her not just his wife but his full partner as trail scout and guide. She was a clever student, skilled in finding food and herbal medicines, and able to recall the difficult route back into the mountains to Shoshone lands. Her wise negotiations in two Indian languages saved them again and again. The Lewis and Clark party survived the harshest of seasons because of what she knew. And so it was that she found herself back in the summer retreat of her people introduced at campfire as interpreter to a great chieftain whom she recognized as her very own brother.

Sacajawea and the Shoshone Tradition

Shoshone Tradition

 

Long on accomplishments in a very short life

After her homecoming was warmly celebrated among family and while many months passed in gathering supplies, she and her husband Charboneau and their infant son, Pompy, continued the route west with the Discovery Expedition through the upper Columbia basin eventually to the Pacific Ocean. At the age of twenty-five Sacajawea was dead leaving Charboneau heart-broken and truly alone. For when the great journey ended at St. Louis their son went with Meriwether Lewis to be educated and apprenticed according to his parents wishes for his better life.

 

Sacajawea and Pomp

Within the 71 acre Interpretive Center she and her son Pompy are commemorated in this beautiful bronze sculpture by Agnes Vincens Talbot. Standing before the statue below the Beaverhead Range in the Lemhi River Valley surrounded by a garden of natural rock and flowers, it seems a fitting tribute to the little girl returned.

Sacajawea earned her place in American history by overcoming every kind of hardship and bias. She was fortunate in having a good mind for solving life’s thorniest problems and smart enough to give her loving heart to a good man who worked just as hard alongside her. While the full extent of her contributions are not widely known, be one of those who knows and remembers.

[To learn what the modern Agaidika think of Sacajawea, read the essay by Rozina George which evaluates the Lemhi Shoshone qualities in Sacajawea that helped share her culture and knowledge.]

Sacajawea and Pomp

“Sacajawea and Pomp” by Agnes Vincens Talbot

William Clark compared these to the “Pirimids of Egypt”
Lewis and Clark

In our adventuring into the backcountry hills on August 22, 2013, north along the Salmon River to Tower Creek, we discovered these just as the Discovery Expedition did more than two hundred years earlier. Their Shoshone guides led them along old Indian trails eventually toward the Columbia River and the Pacific. Along the way they camped at The Bluffs and the next day started into the hills where the travelers were amazed at sights like this.

The waist of Idaho is formed of sedimentary deposits where harder caprock protects softer limestone creating uneven erosion, odd promontories, and weird shapes. When William Clark explored beyond Tower Rock seeking a passable route through the mountains to the Pacific, he found these formations and wrote in his journal that the shapes reminded him of descriptions of the Egyptian pirimids and his name and spelling have stuck! Clark also wrote that the lead pack horse tumbled backward from the steepness of the terrain on the first morning out. It happened right here.