Sacagawea, Sacajawea, Sakakawea

Let’s stop romanticizing the life of the Girl on the Dollar Coin.

(Source: Amazon.com)

Frankly, I’m a little sorry to bring this up. Don’t be embarrassed, you say, it’s history! We should bring it to light! Well, it seems like the last thing we need right now is to uncover another part of the stinky underbelly of American history and culture, but here goes.

Have you ever seen a Sacagawea dollar coin? I hadn’t seen one in awhile. But when I was little, I used to love getting them from vending machines; I think I even found one on the ground once and remember skipping back to my house because I was so happy. It’s the only coin I can remember ever getting excited about.

It’s whole dollar in a coin. It has the heft and the golden sheen of something valuable, of a dollar that really matters. My parents hated Sakakawea coins because they were heavier than regular bills, so I usually got to keep one if it came around.

Let me remind you what the coin looks like, since you haven’t probably seen one in awhile either (it’s been out of general circulation since 2011).

The front and back of a Sacagawea coin circa 2000. (Source: usacoinbook.com)

The obverse side of the golden coin depicts Sacajawea, a Shoshone Native American, looking over her shoulder at you with a soft smile, as if she is about to walk away, or perhaps lead the way. On her back in a cloth cross-body sack is the face of a small sleeping baby, which is that of her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Above the baby’s head are the words “In God We Trust”, and in bold letters over Sakakawea’s head is the word “LIBERTY”.

Let me remind you who Sacagawea is, too, since you probably learned about her in elementary school and haven’t spent much time wondering about her since then (but don’t feel bad, I had to look it up too).

Sacajawea became a prisoner at ten years old. The Hidatsa tribe, an enemy of her native Shoshone people, kidnapped her during a buffalo hunt in 1800. In 1804, Sacagawea became the property of a French fur trader over two decades her senior named Toussaint Charbonneau through a trade, gamble, or purchase — this is one of the many places where Sacagawea’s history is blurred, most likely out of the disinterest of those who did even bother to document Sakakawea’s existence.

A few years later, explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rolled through the Hidatsa settlement where Sakakawea and Toussaint lived, and asked them to join their expedition, realizing that Sacajawea’s fluency in both the Shoshone and Hidatsa languages would serve them well. She gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste, and then the expedition headed west.

In Lewis and Clark’s journals, Sacajawea is only mentioned seventeen times by name and is otherwise referred to often as The Interpreter. And yet, only a month into the expedition, she saved crucial books, medicines, navigational instruments and more when one of the expedition boats capsized — a calamity that could have ended the trip. She sustained the expedition’s crew by picking edible berries and plants, navigating Shoshone trails by memory, and maintaining the appearance of a peaceful group to defensive Native American tribes as the only woman in the crew. She also cared for her son throughout the entire trip.

A depiction of Sacagawea in the painting “Lewis and Clark at Three Forks” by Edgar S. Paxson. (Source: http://oceanexplorer.noaa.gov/)

And what did she get for it? A branch of the Missouri River in her name, which no one agrees on in its pronunciation or meaning, and a coin that circulated for twelve years until it was deemed too “unpopular” among the public.

For his service in joining the expedition, Sacagawea’s husband received hundreds of acres of land (which he quickly sold) and about nine thousand dollars, adjusted for inflation. William Clark became the legal guardian to Jean Baptiste after insisting on educating him in a boarding school.

Sakakawea died at an estimated age of twenty-five, a few months after giving birth to a daughter who was also adopted by Clark.

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“Sacagawea and Jean-Baptiste” statue in Washington Park, OR. (Source: oregonhikers.org)

I am glad that Sacajawea seems to be a household name, and that she is usually mentioned in historical accounts of Lewis and Clark’s expedition. But, it is my fear that we do not know Sacagawea, and we have appropriated her image for our own fantasies of westward expansion and the freedom of the frontier.

Placing word “LIBERTY” over Sakakawea’s head on her coin seems like a cruel joke! Did anyone actually look into her life before designing this f***ing coin? She was kidnapped, and then bought, and then she died. I’m sure Sacagawea would have liked to have had a life of liberty, though, if that’s what they were getting at.

Instead of depicting Sacajawea as the brave, intelligent and invaluable guide that she was, she is depicted as a mother — an unassuming, non-threatening, “Indian Princess” that she was not.

And as the last straw, poor Sacagawea, whose legacy deserves some sort of break in the hands of historical narrative at this point, was placed on a shiny coin with an evidently unpopular denomination. The Eisenhower dollar failed in the seventies, the Susan B. Anthony dollar failed a few years later and again in 1999, and shockingly, Sakakawea’s coin wasn’t popular either when it began minting in 2000.

The plight of Sacagawea’s coin, in light of what we know of her life, rests heavy today. While I would like to compliment the pretty images of this coin, I cannot pretend that we have honored Sakakawea by placing her on this coin, because we do not know her. Her coin should be a remembrance of how Americans have historically treated Native Americans as sub-human. Her coin should be a remembrance of the women who have shaped this country and since gone nameless, faceless, or have had their stories twisted. It should not proudly say “LIBERTY” over the smiling face of someone who had no liberty at all.