The Hole Where the Past Should Be

St. Paul novelist Diane Glancy rescues Sacajawea--and her own Indian history--from the clutches of myth

Picture the morning of December 17, 1804 at the Fort Mandan winter camp, in what is now North Dakota. The temperature had plummeted overnight to 45 degrees below zero, and the settlement's hundred-odd families crowded together beneath buffalo skins to conserve scant warmth. The shallow-keeled boats, which Capt. Meriwether Lewis had hoped to pull ashore for repairs, were solidly frozen into the ice of the Missouri River; it would be another three months before they could be chipped free. That winter was a particularly brutal one on the Dakota plains--Lewis had recently been forced to amputate the frostbitten toes of a local boy with a hacksaw. Add to the unrelenting cold: scarce and uncertain provisions; the looming threat of attack by hostile Sioux; lax discipline; and rampant syphilis (nearly every member of the Lewis and Clark expedition suffered from it). In his journal, Lewis marveled that the Mandan Indians, who were wintering with the explorers, seemed to abide such hardship so steadily. "Customs & the habits of those people has ancered to beare more Cold than I thought it possible for man to indure," he wrote.

That same morning, a young Indian woman was entering the final stages of a difficult pregnancy. Of the woman, called Sacajawea, the following facts are recorded: 16 or 17 years old at the time of Lewis and Clark's arrival, she was the second wife of a feckless French Canadian fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau, who had won her in a bet. As a child, she had been taken captive during a raid on her Shoshoni village. Because of this, Lewis and Clark hoped to use her as an interpreter in negotiations with the Shoshoni. Sacajawea died in 1812, at age 25, of "putrid fever" (possibly syphilis). In the Shoshoni language, her name meant "boat pusher."

"When I went back to Oklahoma, some of the elders would say, 'Don't write about this. Leave it alone. We lost. Don't bring it up again'": Diane Glancy, whose recent novel, 'Designs of the Night Sky,' remembers the Cherokee's Trail of Tears
Trish Lease
"When I went back to Oklahoma, some of the elders would say, 'Don't write about this. Leave it alone. We lost. Don't bring it up again'": Diane Glancy, whose recent novel, 'Designs of the Night Sky,' remembers the Cherokee's Trail of Tears

Here, history begins to shade into folklore. Carrying a small infant, Sacajawea did ultimately accompany Lewis and Clark as they mucked through swamps and over mountains, repelled ravenous grizzly bears, and staved off starvation with a steady diet of dog. Though she is mentioned infrequently in the explorers' journals--Lewis and Clark could not even agree on the spelling of her name, most often referring to her as "the squaw"--Sacajawea has ridden their coattails into history as a sort of frontier Girl Friday. That Sacajawea herself has mostly remained a tabula rasa, mutely immortalized in granite and, most recently, the coinage of the conquering realm, seems only to deepen her mystery.

"That myth has become her," explains novelist and poet Diane Glancy. "During the 1920s, the suffragettes were looking for heroines, and they picked Sacajawea up and lifted her above what was historically accurate. She was really a minor character."

Glancy's interest is more than academic: In her forthcoming novel, Stone Heart (Overlook Press), she wrestles Sacajawea from the grasp of folklore. Here, the Shoshoni girl emerges as she might have been--very young, often frightened, always exhausted. Nevertheless, Sacajawea senses intimations of her destiny. "You know the explorers will change what you are," she muses early on in the story, "that you will be taken into them, that they can look past you without thinking. You know you are nothing they want. Yet you take them four buffalo robes."

Sacajawea, in Glancy's richly imagined retelling, stands as an intermediary between the fast-disappearing native world and a rising American empire. And perhaps that should come as no surprise: If history books are traditionally written by the victors, you might say that Glancy's entire oeuvre creates a secret history of the conquered.

 

One wintry Friday afternoon, Glancy is ensconced in her office at Macalester College--where she has taught literature for the past 14 years--warily regarding the thick manuscript waiting patiently on the corner of her desk. At 61, Glancy has dark hair flecked with silver. Slight and self-possessed, she speaks in a soft voice bearing the faint residual of a Southern childhood. "I think natives are very quiet people. I remember very little my family said growing up. I have trouble talking, too. It's that interior landscape that doesn't always come out in words."

"You know, Sacajawea had the same thing," she continues. "There are places in the journals where Lewis says, 'The squaw doesn't show any emotion. If she had a few beads and enough to eat, she'd be perfectly happy anywhere.' But she had things going on that she just couldn't say. So I tried to show what was really going on inside her head. Because she didn't have the freedom to speak.

"Of course, nobody really knows what she was thinking. But I thought Sacajawea's voice needed to be heard the way it could have been. So how do you walk into history and re-create what was happening in the mind of this woman?"

Glancy began, she explains, by researching the expedition, carting the 14 volumes of Lewis and Clark's journals home with the help of a student. Then, two summers ago, she took a cassette version of same out of the library, loaded up her car, and, traveling alone, traced the expedition's path up the Missouri and Columbia Rivers. "I would listen to these tapes," she says, "and once in a while Sacajawea would be mentioned: 'The squaw is digging roots. The squaw is sick. The squaw saved our instruments from floating overboard when the canoe capsized.'

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