By Allison K. Lange, Wentworth Institute of Technology
Although we know little about Sacagawea, a Native woman, Americans made her into a national symbol. However, in the 19th century, people did not consider Sacagawea the heroine of the expedition that we know her as today. Instead, to many, she represented the eagerness of Natives to accept the rule of the United States government.
Native American Rights Activists
Over the course of the 19th century, the United States continued taking over Native lands and tried to erase Native cultures. The 1887 Dawes Act assigned land to families instead of tribes, which decreased the amount of land in the possession of Native Americans. They sold the rest of the land for profit. Additionally, Native Americans were finally allowed to become citizens, but only if they ‘adopted the habits of civilized life’.
Americans also started boarding schools that required Native children to accept American culture. They forced them to change their names, clothes, and hair, as well as their languages, religions, and cultures. Many believed these schools would improve the lives of these children. However, others, including many of those who were forced to attend them, recognized the cruelty of these schools and later worked to end these practices.
In the early 20th century, Native American rights activists successfully started winning new support, including the rights of self-government and citizenship rights. Native female activists collaborated with the women’s voting rights movement, and Sacagawea became an important icon.
Sacagawea through the Eyes of Eva Emery Dye
In 1902, Oregon author Eva Emery Dye published a new book called The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark. Dye told a romanticized history of the Lewis and Clark expedition that portrayed Sacagawea as one of the main navigators, ‘Indian princess’, and mother.
Soon after the book’s publication, Dye founded the Sacagawea Statue Association to raise money for what was likely the first statue of Sacagawea. Alice Cooper sculpted a statue of Sacagawea that depicted her leading the group with her son on her back. They unveiled the statue in 1905, when Portland hosted the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition to commemorate a century since the expedition. Other women’s clubs followed their lead.
Sacagawea: A Symbol
Sacagawea became a hero for women’s voting rights activists. Suffragists praised the matrilineal traditions valued by some Native tribes like the Haudenosaunee.
Sacagawea was often represented as a mother. This theme worked well with the arguments promoted by moderate white suffragists, who argued that women needed the vote to be better mothers.
Even though white female activists embraced Sacagawea as a symbol, they often excluded women of color from their organizations. They also didn’t recognize that Native women faced different challenges than they did. Some, like Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, who also went by the name Zitkala-Ša, of the Yankton Sioux nation, had been forced to attend Indian boarding schools. As adults, they campaigned to promote Native American culture. Zitkala-Ša joined the Society of American Indians to fight for civil rights.
This is a transcript from the video series 12 Women Who Shaped America: 1619 to 1920. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Women’s Voting Rights
Zitkala-Ša and other Native women also fought for women’s voting rights. Marie Louise Bottineau Baldwin, of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa, and Laura Cornelius Kellogg, of the Wisconsin Oneida, joined her.
In 1915, Kellogg emphasized that Native women have long been respected, powerful members of their communities. She told a newspaper reporter, “It is a cause of astonishment to us that you white women are only now, in this twentieth century, claiming what has been the Indian Woman’s privilege as far back as history traces.”
In some ways, women like Bonnin, Baldwin, and Kellogg held similar positions to Sacagawea because they acted as diplomats between the US government and their Native communities. They sought to create connections and improve the status of Native people.
However, not all Native people wanted US citizenship or the vote. Some groups, like the Zuni Pueblo, believed that becoming citizens who recognized the US government as their leaders would actually endanger their independence from the United States.
The Indian Citizenship Act
Around the time Sacagawea became an icon of women’s rights activism, policies about the rights of Native Americans shifted. For example, in 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, which allowed all Native Americans born in the United States to claim citizenship. Most importantly, the new law did not require Native people to adopt American culture in order to become citizens.
The Indian Citizenship Act made more Native people eligible to vote in US elections. However, it’s important to note that state laws sometimes still disenfranchised Native Americans. There were poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests that prevented Black people from voting in the South. States, especially western ones, often enacted similar laws to prevent Native people from voting, too.
Sacagawea: Representative of the Native People
Today, most schoolchildren learn about Sacagawea. But the ideas she represents have changed over time, and they will continue to change. In some ways, she is more a symbol than a historical figure in American popular culture. She has represented the supposed success of manifest destiny and the rise of the women’s rights movement.
In the 21st century, she might stand as a representative of the many Native people who came before her and the challenging position she found herself in. Regardless of what the future might hold for our stories about Sacagawea, she’ll remain a central part of our history.
Common Questions about Sacagawea
The 1887 Dawes Act assigned land to families instead of tribes, which decreased the amount of land in the possession of Native Americans. They sold the rest of the land for profit. Additionally, Native Americans were finally allowed to become citizens, but only if they ‘adopted the habits of civilized life’.
In 1902, Oregon author Eva Emery Dye published a book called The Conquest: The True Story of Lewis and Clark. She told a romanticized history of the Lewis and Clark expedition that portrayed Sacagawea as one of the main navigators, ‘Indian princess’, and mother.
In 1924, Congress enacted the Indian Citizenship Act, which allowed all Native Americans born in the United States to claim citizenship. Most importantly, the new law did not require Native people to adopt American culture in order to become citizens.