Sacajawea or Sacagawea?

There has been a great deal of controversy over the spelling and meaning of the name of the Indian girl, who, as a squaw of Charbonneau, the interpreter, was the only female member of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06.

The Lemhi County Historical Society, naturally much interested in the entire Lewis and Clark story because it was here in Lemhi County, Idaho, that the Indian Girl was born and it was here that Captains Lewis and Clark traded with the Shoshoni Indians for the horses which made it possible for them to continue their journey to the Pacific, believes that this is a part of the literature regarding the expedition which should be available to the interested public.

It is not issued in the spirit of controversy.  Sacajawea, a Shoshoni name, or Sakakawea, an Hidatsi name, are inconsequential as compared to this Indian woman’s contribution to that memorable exploration of 1804-06.  Hence the name “Madame Charbonneau”, by John E. Rees a booklet published by The Lemhi County Historical Society.

  An excerpt from the letter Mr. Rees wrote is as follows:

 Mr. T. P. Dunlap of Salmon, Idaho, a western and Indian artist, has drawn a picture for me representing this incident which we have entitled “The naming of Sacajawea.”  I am sending you a print taken from the picture of this scene as it portrays most vividly just the idea which the Indian wished to convey in that meeting and name.  In their great joy and while uttering the expression “Saca-tzaw-meah,” the Indians made signs, as is their usual custom in conversation, to explain their thoughts.  These signs are shown in the picture.  The sign which they made was as follows:  Bring both open hands, palms downward, well out in front of the body; close hands and at the same time pull them to the breast as if working “oars.”  This represented the “boat” they were gesticulating about.  As was usual in such cases, Clark turned to Charbonneau, as seen in the picture, and asked him, as he was the official interprester, the meaning of the Indian sign.  Charbonneau, mistaking the sign, told Clark that it meant “bird.”  The sign for “bird” is made as follows:  With the flat hands at the shoulders, palms downward, imitate the motion of wings by flapping the hands, using different speeds for different birds.  This is the sign which Carbonneau thought the Indians were making and is the incident which gave her the appellation of the “bird woman.”  Mr. Dunlap has had years of experience among the Indians and has depicted in thispicture the major events which happened on this historic day.  The Indians on this same day gave the name “Pah-tivo” meaning water white man, to the members of Lewis and Clark’s party.  This then, is the incident which gave this Indian woman the name “Sacajawea,” the bird woman and the followers of Lewis and Clark the name “Pah-tivo”.

 There has been considerable controversy concerning the origin and meaning of the name “Sacajawea” and I wish to elucidate it and make as plain as I possibly can for you.  Horatio Hale, philologist of the Wilk’s Exploring Expedition, compiled forty Indian vocabularies during his tour of the Northwest in 1841 and published them in his book entitled Ethinography and Philology.  He says “Shawk” is the eastern Shoshoni for boat.  “Sawkw” is the western Shoshoni name for the same and “Meakwe” is their word for to go.  D. B. Huntington, who was the Shoshoni interpreter for the Mormon battalion, in 1846, published A Vocabulary of the Snake and Shoshonay Dialect.  He says “Shock” means boat; “Tzaw, to pull; and “Meaie,” to go.  George W. Hill, the interpreter for the Mormon colony which settled and gave the name “Lemhi” to the country and Indians, in 1855, published A Vocabulary of the Shoshone Language, in which he says that “Shii” means boat; “Toak”, to pull; and “Me-ah,” to go.  Hon. Granville Stuart, who married among and lived for years with the Shoshonis, in 1865, says that “Sye” mean boat; “tzack”, to pull; and “Myerro”, to go.  Rev. John Roberts, who spent almost a life time among these Indians at the Shoshoni Mission, Wyoming, says “It is a pure Shoshoni name, ‘Sac’ means boat; ‘A’, the; and ‘Jawe,’ laucher.”

Nicholas Biddle made an abridgement of the Lewis and Clark journals which was published in 1814.  This narrative was entitled History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, and contains some information not comprised in the original journals but knowledge gained from oral statements made by Capt. Clark and George Shannon, both members of the party.  Each of these men told Biddle how this name was pronounced and that they understood the sound “tz” to be like “j” and the attempt to make this word without the “j” sound is erroneious.  Lewis and Clark, being southerners, used the provincialism of that section, slurring the “r’s,” as “sah” for “sir,” etc.  Thus they wrote “Sar-car-gah-weah” but pronounced it “Sah-cah-gah-weah,” and Biddle simply cut outthe “r’s” and “h’s,” spelling the word as it is pronounced, “Sacajawea.”

The word “Sacajawea” is used frequently in Lewis and Clark’s Journal before the party arried at the two forks of the Beaverhead river near Armstead, Montana, at which place I have stated that her tribe gave her this name, but all evidence shows that these were put there after the captains returned from the trip.  When in the field they made rough notes which at leisure they wrote out more fully.  At St. Louis, after their return, they transcribed these journals into other books for publication, after which the original field books were destroyed.  The new journals were used by Biddle, Calark, Coues and others and now contain many erasures, interlineations and emendations made by them.  The journals, now in the keeping of the American Philiosophical Society at Philadelphia, show all of these changes.  On May 20th, almost three months before the meeting at the two forks of the Beaverhead, the captains named a river for Sacajawea, but what they called it is not know; perhaps Squaw Creek; there are numerous streams by that name in the west.  Regarding this stream, Lewis, in one of his journals has written, “This Stream we called Sah-ca-c-meah or bird woman’s river after our interpreter the Snake Woman.  Clark, with red ink, marked out Sah-ca-gee-meah as written by Lewis and interlined Sah-cagahwea instead, such evidence showing that this name did not appear in the journal until they returned as they had no red ink with them on the trip and Clark’s interlineations always appeared in red ink.  This is the only instance in which the name “bird woman” was used and the deletion shows that Lewis had understood the last syllable to be “Meah,’  Clark always wrote it “Weah” which is incorrect as that word in Shoshoni means a gap in the mountains; while Shannon had understood it as “EA.”  Either Clark did not have a good Indian ear, a necessary adjunct in the appreciation of Indian sounds, or in the collection of so much Indian knowledge concerning the topography of the country, as he was the party’s map maker, he had confused this word with the many oft times mentioned “gaps in the mountains.”  None of the other journalist of this expedition wrote this name, usually calling here the interpreter’s squaw, except one place in Orway’s journal where she is called “Sah-cah-gah,” unquestionably the work of Clark as it is immediately folloed by “our Indian woman,” words used by Ordway; also Clark had purchased this journal for Biddle’s use.

As the captains were re-writing their journals at St. Louis, after their return, the last time and for publication, they wished to get them as nearly correct as possible.  In naming this creek for the Indian woman they desired to give it the pronunciation which the Indians themselves would make, notwithstanding any other writing of this word which they had previously made and there is no doublt that this was their last effort at writing it.  I have given the pronunciation of this word as has been used for many years past, yet the real Indian would pronounce it “Sah-kaj’-ah-mee-ah” and this is the manner in which Lewis and Clark, in their last writing of this word, give to the public this Indian name.

An endeavor has been made to derive this name from the Hidatsi Indian word, “Sa-kaka-wea,” using the great weight and influence of Dr. Washington Matthews as authority.  However, Dr. Matthews, in a letter endeavoring to account for this Hidatsi origin, states that that language contains no “j.”  Indians time and again pronounce this name, said there was a “j” sound in the word.  Dr. Matthews also states that “Sakaka” in Hidatsi means bird and “Wea,” “Wia” or “Mia,” woman.  I do not like to question such pre-eminant authority as Dr. Matthews yet my almost fifty years of experience among Indians has taught me that they do not have general or generic words in their vocabulary as bird, woman, child, deer, etc., but everything being named from some characteristic made their words specific, as eagle, sage hen, white tail deer, first wife, etc.,  Mr. Hale, after compiling the vocabularies of forty different Indian languages and dialects says, “There are certain words, however, in all the cocabularies, which are not exact translations of the English word under which they stand.  This is especially the case with all generic denominations.  The words for tree, snake, bird, fish, signify in most cases merely some species belonging to these classes — as pine, rattlesnake, pigeon, salmon, etc.  In many instances, where natives were made to understand the meaning of the English word, they declared that there was no corresponding term in their own dialect.  The word given in the Salish vocabulary for fish, comprehends all animals which inhabit the water, being derived from a word which means water.  The Sahaptin word for bird, means properly “the winged animal.”  The terms town, warrior, friend, must also be reckoned among those whose vague or generic characters makes it difficult to obtain an exact translation into the Indian languages.”  This, also, has been my experience.  Our Shoshoni compilers inform us that “Queen-ah” is the name for bird, but an analysis of the word shows it to mean strength or courage that soars in the sky, undoubtedly meaning an eagle, which they tell us is “Beah Queenah” or Big Bird.  The syllable “Ka” is used by many of the Indian tribes for the name of the raven or crow in imitation of the sound which the bird makes in its cry and in the word “Absaroka,” it is the basis of the Indian name for the Crow tribe.  The only Shoshoni word for woman is wipe which is clearly a word taken from our own language.  So I repeat that my experience among aboriginal Indians, is that they use specific and not generic words, unless they mean the same thing.  Evidently Dr. Matthews was mistaken for I found my conclusions supported even by Lewis and Clark journals where is found such words as “Kaka-wissassa,” meaning lighting crow; “Ka-goh-ha-me,”, little raven; “Kah-kah-we-to,” raven brave in which the syllable “Kaka,” “Ka,” and “Kah-kah,” used by the Mandans, Arikaras and other Indians with whom Dr. Matthews labored, means raven and not bird, and like the Shoshoni eagle, was the bird which they considered had a special charm; a specific and not a general word.  So, we must conclude again that the word “Sacajawea” is of Shoshoni and not Hidatsi origin.