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Letter from Elk City: In search of Sacajawea

By Staff | Jul 11, 2009

For my last piece in this series, I would like to focus on one of the most heroic and mythic figures of the West – Sacajawea, guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1805-1806.

My search for Sacajawea’s grave took me to the Wind River Indian Reservation. I stopped at Fork Washakie, a town named for the fort built there in 1869 to protect the friendly Shoshone and Bannock from the Sioux, Arapahoe and Cheyenne. Today, the reservation hosts two communities of native people – the Shoshone and the Arapahoe.

At Fort Washakie I asked the manager of a gift shop if he could tell me where to find Sacajawea’s grave. He smiled and pulled out a map and marker and showed me exactly where she was buried. “You can’t miss it. It’s the tallest marker in the cemetery,” the man said.

Sacajawea Cemetery, named for Sacajawea, of course, is located two miles west of Fort Washakie then just north up the cemetery road. When I arrived, I saw a rolling hillside dotted with grave markers that glinted in the sun that poked occasionally from storm clouds.

A monument at the cemetery said the Eastern Shoshone believed Sacajawea to actually be buried in the Wind River Mountains to the west. There are actually two branches of the Shoshone. The other is the Northern who apparently have no problem at all believing that Sacajawea is actually buried where her grave monument stands near Fort Washakie.

Somewhat dismayed, I asked a woman who was driving a van with Utah license plates about it.

“Oh, yeah,” the woman said authoritatively. “She’s buried in the mountains west of here.”

“Where?” I asked, fully intending to go there.

“No one knows,” she said.

I continued on up the hill where a statue stood of Sacajawea. Many had come to pay her honor, and prayer beads were draped around the statue’s wrist. I knew what the woman had said was not true. I had read that a Rev. Roberts who had officiated at her burial had identified her.

I remembered what the man at the shop had said so I followed a well-worn path to the tallest marker near the middle of the cemetery. Sure enough, there she was.

Sacajawea

Died April 9, 1884

A guide with the Lewis and Clark expedition

1805-1806

Identified, 1907 by Rev. J. Roberts who officiated at her burial

On each side of her were buried two of her sons, Baptiste and Bazil, who died just a year and two years after her, respectively. Another son, Pompey, was adopted and educated by Captain William Clark who continued as a key figure in Indian affairs even after the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The daughter of the woman in the van, possibly granddaughter, was videotaping the monument on the east side of the cemetery. I pointed at the marker near where I stood. “She’s over here,” I said.

The girl looked at me then the woman in the van. I could tell that she was afraid of acting as though she doubted the woman’s word. I thought it was important though that she know the truth.

“Sacajawea is not buried west of here. She’s buried right here,” I said loudly enough for the woman in the van to hear.

The girl smiled, chuckled, and nodded, understanding. Still, she did not dare disobey the woman in the van. I knew though that someday she would return and come to this very spot and pay homage to one of the greatest heroes in American history.

I looked again to Sacajawea’s grave. “What a hero,” I said, the words coming out on their own.

Immediately, I felt a response. I felt the words “thank you” come back from her grave. Not only that, I felt those same words coming back from all the Shoshone people, all the native people, even those once enemies of the Shoshone. Yes, we have our heroes too, they said.

I thought it was so amazing that the native people have been so resilient, despite the centuries of slavery and genocide and depravation they underwent at European hands. Then I looked toward the west to the Wind River Mountains with Gannett Peak, at 13,804 feet the highest point in Wyoming. Directly to the west were Fremont Peak at 13,745 named for explorer John Fremont and Mt. Sacajawea at 13,569 – exactly due west from where she was buried.

I thought of our economy and wars and social problems. And then I realized how small those problems really are, how infinitesimal, compared to the eternal power and truth of the mountains and people such as Sacajawea.

Many western native peoples, in fact most, believe that the white man’s civilization will wither and die and theirs will come back, complete with the buffalo and the old ways. When you put that belief up against the current realities of worldwide conflicts and civil unrest and global warming, you can only come to one conclusion …

They could very well be right.