The name Sakakawea

Statue of Sakakawea and baby in Bismarck, North Dakota.
Sakakawea with baby Pomp

While we were in Bismarck recently, my husband and I checked out the North Dakota State Heritage Center Museum.

One of the exhibits was all about Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their travels westward during the first decade of the 1800s (immediately following the Louisiana Purchase).

Except…”Sacagawea” is not what they call her in North Dakota. There, they prefer the name Sakakawea. And that’s not just a preference; it’s the official spelling.

Here’s how the name discrepancy was explained in one of the exhibits:

What’s in a Name?

Two hundred years after Sakakawea was mentioned by name in the journals of Lewis and Clark, the debate over the spelling and pronunciation of her name continues. This issue was confused from the beginning, since the journals spell her name almost a dozen ways, and all are phonetic translations of an unwritten language. There is also debate over whether her name is Shoshone or Hidatsa. Some argue that she would have been given a new name when adopted into the Hidatsa tribe. Some have adopted the spelling Sacajawea, a translation of the Shoshone name Boat Launcher. Other groups, such as the federal government, endorse the spelling Sacagawea from the Hidatsa name for “Bird Woman.” Since the early 1900s, North Dakota has used the alternative spelling of Bird Woman, Sakakawea. These are all imperfect approximations of her real name. Captain Clark avoided the pronunciation issue by calling her Janey.

The only version of the name that’s ever been popular enough to appear in the SSA data is Sacajawea, which popped up twice in the mid-1970s:

  • 1977: unlisted
  • 1976: 7 baby girls named Sacajawea
  • 1975: 5 baby girls named Sacajawea [debut]
  • 1974: unlisted
  • 1973: unlisted

Perhaps it was inspired by the American Indian Movement (AIM), which also had an influence on names like Morningstar.

One thought on “The name Sakakawea

  1. Related name (sort of): Randy’L He-dow Teton, the Shoshone-Bannock/Cree woman who modeled for the US Sacagawea dollar coin.

    Her father’s name is Randy Leo Teton — I’m assuming this is where her first name came from.

    Her given middle name is He-dow, which is pronounced he-dough in the Shoshone language and means meadowlark, while in the Bannock language it means “close to ground” and is pronounced hi-though.

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