The fringes on her white buckskin dress
swayed, and in her moccasins her steps were soft. The crowd gathered at
Washington State University’s Vancouver campus was hushed. Sacagawea’s dark
eyes shown in the lighting and her long black braids hung over her breasts.
She stood center stage – chin high, shoulders down. She took a sip of water
and then began, her voice full of gravitas.
“Water is very important,” she intoned. “And whenever we begin something it
is good to give thanks. Thanks for the water. Thanks for all of life,
because we were taught that life is fragile.”
Dr. Jeanne Eder, member of the Dakota Sioux tribe, associate professor of
History and director of Native Studies at the University of Alaska at
Anchorage, has been impersonating Sacagawea since 1997. She accepted the
invitation of the WSU History Department’s Pettyjohn Committee to come down
to the lower 48 and do the performance for her alma mater.
“Back in 1979 when I was teaching at the University of North Dakota, the
state’s Committee for the Humanities asked me to portray Sacagawea, but I
refused because she was a heroine of white culture. Instead I did Waheenee
Buffalo Bird Woman,” Dr. Eder said. “Finally, though, in 1997 I agreed to
do Sacagawea because my fear was that she was going to become the
Pocahontas of the West, and we’d have another Hollywood movie about how
Sacagawea ran off with William Clark, something she would have never done,
Dr. Eder plugs into the matriarchy pundits to give Sacagawea the power and
dignity she deserves. Speaking in character, she said: “I tell you, these
Hidatsa women are very smart. They own all the houses, the women. And the
women must not walk beside the man. They walk behind the man,” Eder paused
for the punch line. “To tell him where to go.”
The crowd takes a breath and laughs, but Eder stayed fully in character.
“The woman has the power. Power over the wingeds of the air and the two
leggeds and the things that crawl. And the ceremonies. The women have that
power because they have all the people and own all the property. But still
they gave the ceremonies to the men along with the power to speak,” Eder,
as Sacagawea, again waits for a moment before continuing. “The women tell
them what to say, but the men get to say it.”
The evening went on from there. Dr. Eder kept the audience mesmerized for
an hour giving glimpses of the Lewis and Clark Expedition through the eyes
of a Hidatsa woman.
“One of the things I learned about these men. They’re always in a hurry –
they want things right now. Still, when Clark slapped Charbonneau for
hitting me – that’s when I knew Clark was going to be my brother.”
One of the reasons Eder is selective in accepting invitations do to
Sacagawea is the caliber of questions audiences tend to pose. “White
audiences tend to want to make me the spokesperson for all Native people,”
she said. “Plus that, the caliber of some of their questions can really
grate: How come Indians gamble? How come they have casinos? Home come they
can’t balance their checkbook? That’s the worst one.
“Children’s audiences are the best, though. They aren’t so tainted by
racist views of Native people. They just get into it and want to know about
Sacagawea’s dress and her blue beads and cradleboard. Just so focused on
And it’s the story that compels Eder as well.
“I put it this way. Sacagawea was on a journey. We all make circular
journeys in our lives. We all have examples of where we started at one
point, and we journeyed out and around and we came back to that same point.
Sacagawea knew she was returning to the place where she had been captured
by the Hidatsa people. I think that brought fear and anxiousness as well as
Dr. Bill Lang of Portland State University’s History Department commented
on Eder’s WSU performance and observed that our actual knowledge of
Sacagawea is based on very little written material. “What we have here is a
filling in of a cultural space that is not present in the journals,” said
Lang. “And I would argue that the only way to understand Sacagawea is the
way Jeanne is doing it – through her interpretation.”
Eder, of course, agrees. Although she is Dakota Sioux herself, she was
married to a Crow and explains that she “has worked hard to raise her
daughter in the Crow traditions. Crows, as you probably know, are cousins
of the Hidatsas.” Between her life experiences and the study of American
history, Eder feels she has genuine insight into how a woman from the
Hidatsa tribe might have felt going through the experiences that Sacagawea
did. The absence of references in the Lewis and Clark journals about
Sacagawea doesn’t trouble Eder at all. Rather she finds the omissions an
expected outcome of both the era and scenario.
“Sometimes we come back around in the same place we were and say ‘what
caused me to go around in that?’ For Native people circles are sacred
symbols, and when you complete one of your journeys it’s a very special
defining moment,” explained Eder.