Thursday, April 6, 2017

Indian Princesses and the Women Who Saved Settlers

Today is the birthday of Sacajawea.  You may remember her as the woman who went along on the Lewis and Clark expedition.  You may not know that she was travelling with her newborn baby.  She's one of 5 or 6 women represented in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U.S. Capitol (go here for the complete list).

I would argue for the presence of more women, but so many women who were important to the development of the U.S. are largely unknown.  I remember reading a historian who commented on the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement back in 2007.  The historian commented that colonists who migrated without women by and large perished.  Men without women planted cash crops and forgot to plant food.

Interesting to have my thoughts return to Sacajawea when they've so recently been focused on Pocahontas; yesterday was the anniversary of her marriage to John Rolfe.  Interesting to think about how the future of the country, the future of the U.S. as I have come to know it, relied on these women.  Without Sacajawea, it's almost certain that Lewis and Clark and their expedition would have been slaughtered at first sight, without any chance to explain themselves.  But when hostile Native Americans saw that they were travelling with a woman and a baby, they saw the expedition as non-threatening.

And they needed her for her language skills, her navigational skills, her knowledge of what foods were safe to eat.  There were so many ways that she saved the men again and again.  Likewise, Pocahontas helped save the colonists in many ways.  Did she really lay her head down on John Smith's head when he was going to be executed and thus prevent his beheading?  Probably not.  But she saved him in many ways, albeit less dramatic ways.

From the Native American perspective, in hindsight, the Lewis and Clark expedition couldn't have been more threatening, although not in ways that hostile tribes might have anticipated.  The Lewis and Clark expedition opened up the west, and within a generation or two, settlers were pushing west, which meant pushing Native Americans off their lands (or killing them), wiping out the Buffalo populations, fencing the west . . . on and on the list of horrors could go.

Of course, when I was a young girl devouring the stories of Sacajawea and Pocahontas, I didn't think about those kind of things.  Even as a child, I loved stories that showed that women could do more than being simply wives and mothers.  Or was my thinking bound by gender?   Maybe I loved any story that showed humans doing more than their societies usually allowed.

When I was in grade school in the 1970's, some of my friends were part of a group called Indian Princesses.  It was kind of like Girl Scouts, only with a Native American theme--and girls got an Indian name!  I was so jealous.  I don't remember why I wasn't a member, and soon enough, I was a Girl Scout and forgot about the Indian Princess group.

I remember wanting to be an Indian brave.  I made things that I called bows and arrows, and I pretended to hunt.  Happily, I never got the Physics of bowmaking down, so I never shot an arrow.  Small animals were safe when I was on the hunt.  I also practiced being very still and blending into the landscape.

My childhood imagination was captured by life on the Plains and Prairies, and less by life as earlier colonists lived it.  My adult brain continues to be inspired by people who envision new ways to live their lives.

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