Editor’s note: This is the second of a pair of stories examining the claim that Sacagawea was Hidatsa. Be sure to read the first story,
evaluating her life and the tales surrounding her death.
NEW TOWN, N.D. — Fifty people gathered for a council to discuss a subject that was long a sore point among the Hidatsas living on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation: Sacagawea.
More specifically, they spoke of the need to be more active in informing the public that one of the most famous figures in the exploration of the American West was not who the history books told generations of schoolchildren.
Sacagawea, according to long-held oral traditions, with family stories passed down through the generations, was not a Shoshone who had been taken captive by the Hidatsas, as historians have held for decades.
She was a Hidatsa-Crow who, for a time, had been taken captive by the Shoshones, an enemy tribe that lived in Montana near the Crows, a tribe closely related to the Hidatsas.
The group gathered for a daylong summit in Mandaree, the Hidatsa community at Fort Berthold, on July 15, 2020.
Jerome Dancing Bull, a direct descendant of Sacagawea, said young people should be taught the tribe’s stories of Sacagawea. “They got it wrong!” he said, delivering what became a rallying cry.
That meeting resulted in the Sacagawea Project of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, a group of Sacagawea descendants who researched and wrote a detailed 340-page book, “Our Story of Eagle Woman: Sacagawea: They Got it Wrong.”
The book draws upon oral tradition, family trees, documents and analysis of DNA samples tracing lineages back to Sacagawea, the only woman who was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and her French Canadian fur-trader husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, whom the explorers hired as an interpreter.
“Our story hasn’t been told and we just needed to set the record straight,” said Calvin Grinnell, former tribal historian and one of the members of the Sacagawea Project.
In a way, the effort can be traced back to the late 1990s, when the tribe was preparing for the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, observed from 2004 to 2006.
But the effort didn’t “catch fire” until later, when the group was formed. Dennis Fox, Sr. and his wife Sandra spearheaded the group, starting with research Grinnell had compiled, Grinnell said.
“The research I put forth, they took it and ran with it and put it together in the book,” he said.
Before the Sacagawea Project was launched, three tribal administrations dating back to the 1950s, when flooding caused by Garrison Dam created Lake Sakakawea, tried and failed to get the federal government to recognize Sacagawea’s Hidatsa ancestry.
The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation tribal council supported creation of the Sacagawea Project in 2015, about a decade after the tribe’s last unsuccessful attempt at federal recognition.
The book was published in 2021 but has received little attention outside Fort Berthold, partly because research and publication costs exhausted the project’s budget, leaving little money to promote the book.
Gerard Baker, another member of the Sacagawea Project, said he is unconcerned about the lack of interest outside of Fort Berthold in the case that Sacagawea was Hidatsa, not Shoshone.
“We’re overshadowed by the Lewis and Clark journals, and we’re always going to be overshadowed by the journals,” said Baker, who spent his career as an administrator of the National Park Service and was a consultant for the 1997 Ken Burns documentary, “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.”
The Lewis and Clark journals reported that Sacagawea was Shoshone — the result, the Sacagawea Project argues, of bad translation or deception by Toussaint to make Sacagawea’s skills more attractive, since obtaining horses from the Shoshones would be necessary.
“We’re here to tell our story and educate our children,” Baker said. “If people don’t want to believe it, that’s their problem. I’m not concerned about the outside world. I don’t give a damn about that.”
Sacagawea Project members are aware of the steep challenges they face in trying to persuade people of their case.
“The general public is so, I guess, gullible,” said Grinnell, a former member of the board of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. “They don’t want to believe anything different. I know it’s difficult.”
Even some members of the tribe remain unconvinced, he said. “It’s our version,” Grinnell said. “If they want to believe it, they can. If they don’t, that’s their fault.”
Michael Cowdrey, an independent scholar who studies Plains Indians tribes, came upon the story of Bulls Eye, a Hidatsa who told his story to Major Alfred Burton Welch of Mandan, in 1923.
Bulls Eye said Sacagawea was his grandmother and that he had known her as a young child. He said he was present when she died a week after a raid in Montana that killed his mother. Bulls Eye’s story is at the heart of “Our Story of Eagle Woman.”
Cowdrey sent Welch’s account of Bulls Eye’s story to Burns after learning he was working on a documentary about Lewis and Clark. He included the story and a description of the obituary of Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, Sacagawea’s son, who had told people his mother was Crow, but made no mention of Shoshone ancestry.
Most historians believe Sacagawea died at Fort Manuel Lisa in December 1812, six years after the expedition, citing a one-sentence journal entry by the trading post’s clerk, John Luttig. Cowdrey also dismissed an account by Grace Hebard arguing that Sacagawea died in Wyoming.
“Although part of this evidence is indirect, I find it far stronger than anything compounded of Luttig’s single sentence of Dr. Hebard’s romantic illusions,” Cowdrey wrote Burns. “This is one hell of an important American story.”
Cowdrey sent a letter to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, thinking that Burns would be contacting them, although he never did, apparently because the documentary was already well into production, he said.
Once in touch with the tribe, Cowdrey was sent a manuscript and helped to find a publisher for “Our Story of Eagle Woman.”
“The thing could have been published as it was,” he told The Forum. “I was stunned by its quality. The Hidatsas had the sense to do something that no one else had done,” check the archives with the papers used by Charles Eastman, a Dakota Indian author and physician the government had hired to determine whether Sacagawea had been buried at Fort Lisa or in Wyoming.
Eastman concluded she was buried at Fort Washakie in Wyoming — a finding widely rejected by historians.
“They’ve done an absolutely astonishing job,” Cowdrey said of the Sacagawea Project’s book. “They have done a better job than any American historian in 200 years. They’ve asked the right questions. They were privy to the right information, they thought.”
The book had a small run of about 2,000 editions, said Dennis Fox, Sr., the Sacagawea descendant who spearheaded the Sacagawea Project. The book was published by The Paragon Agency, a small California publisher.
“We’ve tried to make the wider world aware of it, but it’ll take a while,” Cowdrey said.
The book did attract the notice of The New York Review of Books, which reviewed it in its June edition.
The review by Thomas Powers ran under the headline, “Getting Sacagawea Right.”
Powers, a former journalist who wrote the book “The Killing of Crazy Horse,” said historians haven’t seriously examined Sacagawea beyond the Lewis and Clark journals.
“From the beginning, Sacagawea wasn’t taken very seriously by anybody who wasn’t her immediate family,” he told The Forum.
Buffalo hunt holds the key
In researching his review, Powers read about the Hidatsas during her time, including a book by anthropologist
Gilbert Wilson, “Waheenee: An Indian Girl’s Story.”
Waheenee was a Hidatsa who was renowned for her skills as a gardener and a contemporary of Sacagawea.
Another of Wilson’s books,
“Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden,”
includes sketches of garden plots in Like-A-Fishhook Village, including two for Sacagawea and her daughters. They were marked, “Bird Woman,” an English translation for Sacagawea.
Waheenee was Buffalo Bird Woman’s childhood name. While reading her life story, Powers found, “unremarked till now,” a conversation of Hidatsa women while they were traveling with a group on a buffalo-hunting trip.
The women expressed revulsion at the dietary tastes of whites, which included turtles and frog legs. The account included this sentence:
” ‘Ey! And such unclean things; I could not eat them,’ cried Bird Woman.’ ‘
The buffalo hunt Wilson described, which occurred in the mid-1860s, corroborates Bulls Eye’s story because it places her on the Fort Berthold reservation a few years before her death, which, according to Bulls Eye, happened in 1869.
“How do we know the hunting story happened?” Powers wrote in his review. “Buffalo Bird Woman was there, she told Wilson, and Wilson told us.”
Wilson was an acknowledged expert on the Hidatsas and had known Buffalo Bird Woman for 20 years when the story of the buffalo hunt was published in 1927.
Sacagawea lived for a time with a group of Chief Crow Flies High’s followers, a group that broke away from the main community at Like-A-Fishhook Village in the 1860s, according to Hidatsa oral tradition. The group lived by Fort Buford, located near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers south of today’s Williston.
A story passed down among some Hidatsa families holds that, after Sacagawea died near a trading post in the vicinity of Sand Creek in northeastern Montana, her bones were brought back to her people near Fort Buford.
Sand Creek had been a favorite buffalo hunting ground for the Hidatsas for many years.
Searching for Sacagawea’s burial site
Wanda Fox Sheppard, a member of the Sacagawea Project who since has died, was told about Sacagawea by her grandmother, Ruby White Bear Parshall and her aunt Pansy Parshall.
One of the stories she was told was that Sacagawea was buried at Fort Buford. People knew the location of the grave, and sometimes stopped to leave offerings. Bulls Eye said his grandmother’s body was wrapped in canvas and moved to a burial site. He said he returned to Sacagawea’s grave site five years after she died, and offered to take Welch to the site, but they never made the trip.
Sheppard drove her grandmother to Fort Buford to what her grandmother said was Sacagawea’s burial site, one of a number of burial mounds.
Hidatsa Chiefs Drags Wolf and Bears Arms said they knew the exact location of Sacagawea’s grave, according to “Our Story of Eagle Woman.”
Alfred Bowers, an anthropologist who did field work with the Hidatsas at Fort Berthold in the 1930s, rejects the idea that Sacagawea died in 1812 at Fort Lisa, the widely accepted time and place of her death.
“One thing we can be sure of, Bird Woman was not the one reported as dying at Fort Manuel Lisa near the North/South Dakota border,” he wrote in notes the Sacagawea Project cited.
Today the exact site of the grave isn’t known, but the area is known, said Dennis Fox, Sr., Sheppard’s brother.
Some considered using ground-penetrating radar to try to find the grave, but the idea was abandoned because of concerns about disturbing the grave site, Fox said.
‘A story that deserves to be told in full’
Besides oral tradition and family trees, the Sacagawea Project authors turned to DNA analysis from Ancestry.com that they say shows lineages tracing back to both Sacagawea and Charbonneau.
Cowdrey called the DNA evidence a “slam dunk. “That to me is the strongest evidence that the historical information that they grew up with is correct,” he said. “It hasn’t been discredited by the Shoshones. They’ve been instructed for a couple hundred years that she’s their princess.”
Clay Jenkinson, a humanities scholar in North Dakota who has written extensively about Lewis and Clark,
wrote in a review of the book that he is “skeptical of the full Hidatsa claim.”
Still, he said the story of Sacagawea being a Hidatsa is from the authors’ tradition. By contrast, the story that comes down from Lewis and Clark carries “a great deal of Eurocentric cultural baggage” and “might have misunderstood the basic facts of Sacagawea’s biography.”
Also, he wrote that “what the Hidatsa have already accomplished represents a serious revision (almost a revolution) in our thinking about Sacagawea. Their more extreme claim that she was Hidatsa all along” — and not a Shoshone who adopted Hidatsa customs and learned the language — “has to overcome some formidable evidence in the journals of the expedition.”
Future historians must take the information the Sacagawea Project presents in “Our Story of Eagle Woman” into account, Powers said.
“I don’t see in good conscience how you can avoid that,” he said.
Now the challenge for historians will be to delve deeper into the stories of Sacagawea and Charbonneau. Sacagawea, whom the Hidatsas say was born in 1787 and died in 1869 at the age of 82, survived turbulent times, including the devastating smallpox epidemic of 1837, Powers said.
“That’s a story that deserves to be told in full,” Powers said.
The Sacagawea Project hired Michael Welsh, a history professor at the University of Northern Colorado, to research historical documents related to Sacagawea.