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Is It Sacajawea or Sacagawea?

Sacajawea? Sakakawea? or Sacajawea? What is the correct spelling of the name of the American Indian woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their western journey in the early years of the 19th Century? That depends on which source one consults; there is no uniform consensus. According to her husband, her name meant Bird Woman. In the Hidatsa language its correct spelling is "Tsakaka-wias." Wyoming and several other Western states spell it "Sacajawea," a Shoshone word for "Boat-Launcher." In Clark's own journal entry, dated April 7, 1805, her name is rendered as as Sah-kah-gar-wea.

"I am not concerned how people spell her name," says Bonnie Butterfield, the coordinator of Information Resources/WebMaster at California State University, San Bernardino. "I am just happy that she is remembered." Butterfield, whose Cherokee name is Spirit Wind-Walker, continues, "Various tribes who want to claim her as their own have pushed to have her name reflect their language and customs. For instance, the name-spelling question is due, in part, to a dispute about which tribe Sacagawea belonged to. The Sacagawea spelling and 'bird woman' translation supports the argument the she was Hidatsa. The Three Affiliated Tribes, made up of Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, have endorsed this more commonly used spelling of Sacagawea, saying it most closely represents the Hidatsa pronuciation for the Indian name 'Bird Woman.' Sacagawea was enslaved by the Mandan (one of the Three Affiliated Tribes who claim her), then she was won in a gambling game by Chanbonneau. They both lived in Fort Mandan for some time until the Explorers came into the Fort and hired her and her husband for the Expedition."

Born a Shonshone, Sacajawea was a young girl when she was captured by an Hidatsa raiding party and taken to their North Dakota encampment. Ultimately she was sold to Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader, becoming his wife. Both she and Charbonneau, as well as Lewis and Clark, were camped for the winter at Fort Mandan, North Dakota. Once winter had passed, Lewis & Clark employed Charbonneau as their guide, owing to his trapping experience. The explorers ask that both Sacajawea and her infant son accompany them. Their presence on the expedition would show that Lewis and Clark were on a peaceful mission. And it was vital to have a Native American translator who was acquainted with the langauges, customs, and tribes of the country. Sacajawea scarely appears in the pages of Lewis's journals but Clark made detailed records of her contributions to the expedition.

Clark noted that the "great object was to make every letter sound" in cataloging Indian words in their journals. The subsequent pronunciation of Sacajawea's name with a "j" instead of a "g" doesn't correspond to Lewis and Clark's version of her name: "Sah-cah' gah-we-ah." "In fact," notes an Internet source, "her name--made by joining the Hidatsa words for bird ("sacaga") and woman ("wea")--was written 17 times by the explorers in their journals and on their maps, and each time it was spelled with a 'g' in the third syllable."

"The reason I spelled her name with a 'g' instead of a 'j'" explains Bonnie Butterfield, "is because of the many entries made by the Explorers who used a 'g' in spelling her name. The Lewis and Clark Journals are the only record written specifically about her during her short life-time."

Sacajawea proved to be a major assest to the expedition in its encounters with the new Indian tribes. For some of these Indians, this was their initial contact with white men. Clark observed that the Indians were willing to accept that the whites had benevolent intentions when saw they Sacajwea among them. After all, one never expected to see either a woman or a woman with an infant numbering among the members of a war party. During council meetings between Indian chiefs and the Expedition where Shoshone was spoken, Sacajawea acted an an interpreter.

"I actually believe," says Butterfield, "that she was probably named 'Sacajawea' by her Shoshone band in Wyoming, but I prefer to use the more commonly used spelling , 'Sacagawea.' Also, I am repulsed by the treatment she must have experienced in her own Tribe because she was female, as described in the original daily Journals, written by Lewis and Clark ... while they were visiting her band of the Shoshone. I am primarily Cherokee (1/4 Mohawk). Women have equal status in the Cherokee Tribe, which is matrilinial, and all property, and the children belong to the women. We have also had many women serve as Tribial Chief."

Butterfield concludes, "Over time I hope the American 'editorial ethic' will edge toward uniform adoption of the Sacagawea form. We owe it to our most famous Indian heroine at least to spell and pronounce her name right."