For the past two years historian Jeanne Eder has been traveling in Sacagawea’s footsteps. Donning a traditional dress as well as another woman’s persona, Eder has toured the West performing her interpretation of an older and wiser Sacagawea who, years after the Journey of Discovery expedition, has time to reflect.
Eder (’00 Ph.D. Hist.) teaches at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. A Dakota Sioux who grew up on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in northeast Montana, she researches the lives of historic Native American women and portrays them in Chautauqua-style performances.
Playing the most famous woman of the 1800s has its challenges, says Eder. “People tend to get lost in the character and then feel that the character speaks for all Indians.” She often gets questions from the audience that don’t even pertain to Sacagawea or the Lewis and Clark Expedition-questions like, “Why do Indians have such high rates of alcoholism?” and “How come Indians don’t pay taxes?”
Even so, she enjoys stepping into the character of a strong and independent woman. Sacagawea-alternatively spelled Sacajawea-was a Shoshone who grew up in the matrilineal culture of the Hidatsa. Women in this community had the power, says Eder. Sacagawea couldn’t have helped but be influenced by that.
Eder’s portrayals of Sacagawea throughout Washington, Oregon, and Idaho were organized in collaboration with the Washington State University history department to fill a gap in events organized to commemorate the expedition. “There’s a ton of material on Lewis and Clark. No shortage,” says WSU history professor Sue Armitage. “Where there is a shortage is in material on how the Indians felt.
“The way in which you present the Indian side of the story is not to lecture at white people, but to make them feel they are a part of the Indian world,” says Armitage. Eder does just that. “And her Sacagawea is not a 15-year-old girl. She is a mature woman looking back with some humor.”
Though some history books have Sacagawea dying at an early age, others claim that she went on to live many more years with the Shoshone in Wyoming.
For her portrayal, Eder taps into the oral histories of Indians who claimed they or their family members encountered Sacagawea long after the history books have her dying. For Eder’s Sacagawea, the expedition was just one of many life experiences.