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Bird Woman, Boat Launcher: The many names of Sakakawea


Sakakawea is immortalized in history books, but depending on which one you're reading or who you ask, the spelling and pronunciation of the legendary woman's name differs.

Lake Sakakawea State Park Manager John Tunge said he is constantly questioned about the Native American woman's name.

"People that come particularly from the east, they all question why we pronounce it Sakakawea rather than Sacajawea," Tunge said. "It's spelled differently here, it's pronounced differently and there's all kinds of different stories."

He likens the discrepancy to the different pronunciation of the word tomato, or how some regions use various words to describe the same object.

"Maybe it's a North Dakota thing," Tunge said. "It's kind of like is it a can of pop or a can of soda? It depends on where you're from."

Those who come to visit from locations west of the state seem to question the name more often, he said.

"But I think as you move away from the Dakotas, particularly North Dakota, a lot of school children are taught Sacajawea," Tunge said.

He said he wouldn't want to call the park Sacagawea or Sacajawea, as the Native American's name is spelled in other regions.

"I'd hate to change the name," Tunge said. "If we had to we would, but it seems to suit us for now."

Meanings of her name also vary, including Boat Launcher, Bird Woman and Carrying Bundle On Back. There are also at least a dozen spellings (as listed around this page). Is there a correct spelling and pronunciation and if so, which is it?

"Is it a spelling error, pronunciation error or both?" he said. "I think it depends on what side of the country you ask and what tribe you ask, and you're probably going to get a different answer."


Genia Hesser -- curator of exhibits for North Dakota Historical Society:

"Her name comes down to us through a single source, which is the Lewis and Clark journals," Hesser said. "Between Lewis and Clark, they spelled her name eight different ways."

Whether her name comes from a Shoshone tribe or a Hidatsa tribe is another source of the discrepancy, she said.

"She was a Shoshone that was captive and then adopted by the Hidatsa tribe," Hesser said. "So when she was adopted, traditionally the Hidatsa would have given her a new adoptive name."

Sacajawea reflects a Shoshone word meaning boat launcher, she said.

Sacagawea, which is most often used nationally and by the federal government, along with Sakakawea, which is only used in North Dakota, reflect a Hidatsa word which means "bird woman," she said.

"Bird woman is from several different sources. Both oral traditions of the Hidatsa people themselves and ethnologists."


Calvin Grinnell -- A New Town Native American historian with the Tribal Historic Preservation Office:

Part of the problem is Native Americans in Sakakawea's time had no written language, Grinnell said.

"It does indeed mean bird woman in Hidatsa," he said.

Sakakawea was born into the Hidatsa tribe and given a Hidatsa name, Grinnell said.

"We have oral tradition with that supports that," he added.

The Hidatsa word for woman sounds like "wea" and bird sounds similar to "Sagaga," Grinnell said.

The word Sakakawea was developed as a way to spell the name closely to the Hidatsa's pronunciation, he said.

"Our tribe endorsed it," Grinnell said. "It's kind of hard g's, but k's probably came close."

Sacajawea is a mispronunciation, he said.

"It doesn't have any meaning among our people," Grinnell said.

Sacajawea is not a name from a different tribe, since she was always Hidatsa, he said.

"It is somewhat irritating," Grinnell said. "I myself feel part of that because it's so well-accepted and if you try to explain it they come up with these other things."


Clay Jenkinson -- Lewis and Clark scholar from Bismarck

The use of the "k" in Sakakawea is incorrect.

"Sakakawea is just kind of a vulgar oversimplification, but at least it's within the Hidatsa origins of her name," Jenkinson said. "It's slightly embarrassing now for us to cling to this when we know better."

The name is a Hidatsa word which means bird woman, he added.

"For most of American history, people thought it was Sacajawea, which is not a way that Lewis and Clark spell it, but it's the way the Shoshone, the people amongst who she was born knew her identity," Jenkinson said.

Sakakawea was born into a Shoshone tribe on the Montana and Idaho border, he said.

"I doubt that it was Sacajawea, but she had a name there," Jenkinson said. "Then she was captured at about the age of 11 by Hidatsa warriors from North Dakota."

She was then absorbed by the Hidatsa tribe and given a name that was pronounced something like Sacagawea, he said.

"You have to kind of swallow the sound in the back of your throat -- Sacagawea," Jenkinson said of the pronunciation.

Some spelling discrepancies stem from Lewis and Clark's attempts to spell a name they were unfamiliar with, he added.

"It was very hard because we're talking about a very guttural sound that you can't really reproduce in the Roman alphabet and so they tried to get her name and they did their best and we have to trust that they got closer than we can," Jenkinson said.


Phoebe Wilson -- archivist for the Eastern Shoshone Tribes Administration and;

Caroline Mills -- Fort Washakie Learning Center, both Native Americans in Fort Washakie, Wyo.:

Sacajawea is the spelling used by the Shoshone tribe Sakakawea was born into, Wilson said.

The woman's name was pronounced similar to "Suckawea," which means carrying bundle on back, Wilson said.

Sacajawea can also mean bird woman, Mills said.

Sakakawea was captured from the Shoshone tribe, Mills said.

"They took her and her sister," she said. "They were stolen in some kind of a raid. They were young girls then too."

The spelling used now is on a headstone placed at her final resting place at a cemetery near Fort Washakie, Mills said.

The discrepancy between the way her name is spelled and pronounced stems from other tribes claiming her as their own, she said.

"When the United States decided to make money available for the Lewis and Clark Trail, all of a sudden everybody wanted to claim her because money became involved," Mills said. "In my opinion, Idaho's her birth place, Wyoming is death place and North Dakota had her sister."

Sacajawea was also called lost woman and grass woman, Wilson said.