The Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 20, 1999:
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Travis Charbeneau 3421 Hanover Ave., Richmond, VA 23221 firstname.lastname@example.org Phone: 804 358 0417 www.travischarbeneau.com
In Defense of Auntie Sacagawea Travis Charbeneau 846 words slug "auntie"
PULL QUOTE: "It is possible for the politically desirable and dramatically interesting to also be historically correct."
The new Sacagawea dollar is under assault for elevating political correctness above history. The coin and related historical interpretation celebrate the Indian girl as an essential contributor to the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-5. Among the naysayers, one letter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch complains that the expedition's original interpreter and hunter George Drouillard (aka "Drewyer") was in fact "the hero of the expedition." Dennis J. O'Connor cites an 1807 letter by Meriwether Lewis that praises Drouillard (whose "marksmanship was so good that it often awed hostile Indians into leaving them alone") while failing even to mention the Indian princess. Somewhat to the contrary, Lewis went out of his way to characterize Sacagawea's husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, as "a man of no particular merit." As an albeit-distant relation, I feel I must come to the defense of Sacagawea, if not "Pumpkin Man." Apparently, my great-grand whatnot Toussaint was indeed a roguish character who nonetheless became so familiar to the tribes of the Upper Missouri that he won a variety of nicknames, including "Pumpkin Man," "Chief of the Little Villages" and "Bear of the Forest." Lewis and Clark took him on as an interpreter, even though the celebrated Drouillard was already aboard. The fact that Charbonneau had a pregnant, 16 year-old Shoshoni wife, kidnapped as a girl in the far West by his pals, the Hidatsa, may have been perceived as a serendipitous asset by Lewis. As the expedition blundered through potentially hostile territory, the mere presence of a woman and a baby would give assurance that they were no war party -- nicely avoiding any need for Drouillard's marksmanship. Sacagawea and little Pompey's role as an advance team alone justifies history's interest. But Lewis also noted that Sacagawea was their "only dependence for a friendly negociation (sic) with the Snake (Shoshoni) Indians on whom we depend for horses to assist us in our portage from the Missouri to the Columbia river." And she proved her worth in other ways, compensating somewhat for her klutzoid husband. For example, in May, 1805, shortly after passing Yellow Bear Defeat Creek, where they bagged themselves a bear and named themselves a creek, Lewis and Clark were both walking along the banks of a very brisk Missouri, leaving their pirogues and canoes in the hands of underlings. Both captains were rarely out of the boats at the same time, and they soon came to regret this exception. A squall sprang up, and a violent gust of wind hit the pirogue containing the expedition's papers, books, instruments, medicine and (Lewis) "almost every article indispensibly necessary to ... insure the success of the enterprize." Unfortunately, Charbonneau was at the helm during this crisis. Both captains stood on the shore gaping as Charbonneau, "perhaps the most timid waterman in the world," instead of turning the little sailboat into the wind "lufted her up into it" and over she went. Lewis and Clark fired their rifles into the air. They shouted incoherent orders. Lewis stripped off his coat and prepared to swim the cold, fast river, an act for which, as he later wrote, "[I] should have paid the forfit of my life." Instead they kept shouting useless advice that no one could even hear. For 30 seconds the boat shipped water. Expedition-member Cruzatte, at the helm of the foundering craft, offered to shoot Charbonneau if he didn't take control of the rudder, and began preparing his rifle. Inspired by Cruzatte, Toussaint responded even as the crew bailed for their lives. Meanwhile, Sacagawea, up to her waist in the sinking boat and holding her papoose aloft, calmly collected the more precious contents of the pirogue as these began to wash overboard and float past. Lewis: "Charbono still crying to his god for mercy, had not yet recollected the rudder ... the Indian woman caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard ... [and stood] in equal fortitude and resolution with any person on board at the time of the accedent." By August, they reached the watershed of the Columbia and Shoshoni country. Like other tribes they had met that spring and summer, the Shoshoni were wary until they saw Sacagawea and the baby. Then, incredibly, when Sacagawea was called in to interpret the all-important horse council, she recognized Chief Cameahwait as her long lost brother. National Geographic says, "She ran to him, threw her blanket around him and wept." The necessary horses were acquired, and Sacagawea further persuaded Cameahwait to postpone an upcoming buffalo hunt until the expedition could be seen safely some further distance West. The laudable quest for minority and female role models in "his story" is forever fraught with risk of political correctness, just as any retelling of events is subject to the "Hollywood or history" critique. But it is possible for the politically desirable and dramatically interesting to also be historically correct. Admittedly short on masculine heroics, Sacagawea seems a sufficiently exceptional historical character to warrant commemorative imprint on the new dollar. Drouillard may have been a critical expedition member, but Sacagawea continues to win and hold posterity's interest and affection.