GREAT PLAINS – So, I’m from North Dakota. I was born and raised in Fort Yates, North Dakota, on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation. When I was in the eighth grade our Social Studies teacher, a hard-as-nails woman who always spoke through her teeth as though she had lockjaw, took the class through our North Dakota history units and drilled it into us that we were Teton Lakota and we should be proud of our heritage. No one in the class liked her, but she commanded every one’s respect, and the few who dared to cross her path with asinine behavior were quickly dealt with.
Mrs. Kills Pretty Enemy had a favorite saying, it came off as a little “preachy” but she was a gospel singer, and she’d share it with the class weekly, “You have to want to.” Whenever she’d step out of the room a few daring classmates would offer an impersonation of Mrs. Kills Pretty Enemy and the class would giggle, until she returned.
As I was reviewing some of the North Dakota history units, I was reminded of my teacher when I came across the story of the young native woman who assisted the Corps of Discovery. Mrs. Kills Pretty Enemy always enunciated her name carefully and almost zealously (I suspect because she was one of the few women, much less an Indian woman, that US history cared to remember). She always said, “Sacajawea.” Most Americans pronounce it that way too, SAH-kah-jah-WEE-ah.
I couldn’t explain or articulate it then as a middle school boy, but saying “Sacajawea” somehow always felt “wrong.” It was always explained to me that “Sacajawea” meant “Bird Woman.” In Lakota on Standing Rock, we were taught that to say “Bird Woman” as “Zitkala Winyan.” When I got older, and hopefully wiser, to care, it turns out that Sacajawea was known to the Lakota too, and we did in fact know her as “Zitkala Winyan,” as Bird Woman.
Bird Woman resided at Fort Manuel Lisa with her husband Charboneau and sister. Historically, Fort Manuel Lisa was in the heart of Northern Teton Lakota territory. Today, Fort Manuel Lisa has been reconstructed near present-day Kenel, South Dakota, on the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation.
The story of Bird Woman is a complicated one. The Shoshone Indians insist that her name is “Sacajawea.” They say that her name means “Boat Launcher.” The general story is that she was kidnapped by the Hidatsa and brought to the Five Villages at Knife River (today its called Knife River Indian Villages located at present-day Stanton, ND). The Hidatsa Indians, however, were sedentary agricultural people, not particularly wont to journey so far west to Shoshone Indian country to steal children. The Hidatsa were traders, with trade coming to them. Bird Woman was likely kidnapped by the Crow Indians, a sister tribe to the Hidatsa, and who were west of the Five Villages, and who would have most likely raided the Shoshone Indians for horses.
At the Five Villages, Bird Woman came to be known amongst the Hidatsa as Bird Woman. In Hidatsa, they called her Tsacagawea (run the “t” together with the “s”), tsah-KAH-gah-WEE-ah.
When the Corps of Discovery met Bird Woman, they struggled with her name. Captain Lewis spelled it four different ways, Captain Clark spelled it yet four more different ways, and altogether the Corps of Discovery spelled it seventeen different ways. Not once with a “j”.
Captain Lewis spelled it:
Captain Clark spelled it:
The Shoshone Indians spell it:
Sacajawea, meaning “Boat Launcher.”
The Hidatsa Indians spell it:
Tsacagawea, meaning “Bird Woman.”
In North Dakota it is spelled:
The National Park Service spells it:
Amy Mossett, an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes, and a matrilineal Mandan, has done some tremendous research on the subject of Bird Woman. According to her research, it was the Woman’s Sufferage Movement who changed the spelling and pronunciation of Sacagawea to Sacajawea.
Some questions to consider about Bird Woman are:
When did she die?
Where did she die?
These aren’t so easy to answer.
Likely in December, 1812, at Fort Manuel Lisa after giving birth to a daughter, Lisette. The Shoshone have the oral tradition that she died on the Wind River Indian Reservation in 1884. Dr. Charles Eastman, a Dakota Sioux, was sent on a “Sacajawea” pilgrimage by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it was Dr. Eastman’s conclusion that Sacajawea died at Wind River.
I’ve seen my old social studies teacher around once in a while. I’m respectful of her and I can appreciate the time and efforts she put into our education. When I do see her, I always remember afterwards about telling her about Sacagawea.
Click here for imagery and a little more about Sacagawea.
Dakota Wind is an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. He is a student at North Dakota State University in Fargo, working on a graduate degree in history. Dakota has written for various journals and magazines, and a recent paper of his appears in Karl Skarstein’s “The War With The Sioux,” 2015, for a free e-copy visit The Digital Press. He occasionally maintains the history blog The First Scout.