This is Charles Russell’s 1918 painting, Lewis and Clark Reach Shoshone Camp Led by Sacajawea the "Bird Woman." By calling her “Bird Woman,” Russell was using a popular definition of her name which assumes it came from the Hidatsa, though he spelled it the Shoshone way. She was Shoshone, so if she was allowed to keep her given name when she was captured, it would translate to something like “boat launcher” or “boat puller.”
In the journals of the Expedition the name is spelled seven different ways, but all using the hard “g.” Clark once explained that Indian words in the journal would be spelled “to make every letter sound.” So, Sacagawea, is widely accepted, though in Idaho, you’ll often see it as Sacajawea, because that’s how her people would have pronounced it.
Sacajawea, or Sacagawea, was about 12 when she was captured by the Hidatsa in 1800. It’s often mistakenly understood that she guided the Lewis and Clark Expedition. On its face this is highly suspect. She had a 12-year-old’s memory of her home territory and had never been to many of the places the Expedition travelled. It was a Western Shoshone chief that guided them on the latter part of their journey. They called him “Toby” because, really, who can pronounce Tuziyammo?
That is not to downplay Sacajawea’s role on the expedition. She was a critical member who may have saved them more than once simply because she and her infant son were travelling with them, signaling that this was not a war party.
But that’s all a sideroad. Back to the painting.
The Russell depiction captures an important moment in the story of Lewis and Clark. Sacajawea’s brother, Cameawait, is shown as he affectionately embraces his sister. The meeting took place near the Lemhi River in what would become Idaho. The Corps of Discovery was able to trade with the Shoshone for horses that would allow them to double back into present-day Montana, then cross into Idaho again along the Lolo Trail.
Sacajawea would travel the whole route with the Corps of Discovery, ending up back at the Hidatsa-Mandan village where she had begun the journey. Her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau was adopted by William Clark after Sacajawea’s death in 1812 at about age 25. “Pomp,” as Clark called him, went on to live a rich and adventurous life. A daughter, Lisette, was born to Sacajawea shortly before the woman’s death. She, too, was adopted by Clark, though Lisette seems to have dropped out of the history books shortly after.
Like her name, there is also a controversy about Sacajawea’s death. Some historians believe she lived most of her life on the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming, where she died in 1884. This stems from confusion caused by a report written about the death of Toussaint Charbonneau’s wife, who was not referred to by name. The Frenchman had a couple of wives, so…
We’ll leave the question of her death for today, and just enjoy the painting. Two siblings at the moment of the their reuniting, frozen in history by an artist who brought it to life through his imagination.