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Sakakawea state exhibit reopens today

Genia Hesser of the State Historical Society explains a featured display in the Creating Sakakawea exhibit Wednesday at the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck. One of Sakakawea's descendants wore this attire when she modeled for the state's statue of Sakakawea in the early 1900s.2 / 2

BISMARCK -- An exhibit honoring one of the most popular figures in North Dakota history officially reopens today.

"Creating Sakakawea" explores the story behind North Dakota's Sakakawea statue and what the Native American woman has meant to people throughout history.

The display at the state Heritage Center in Bismarck ties in with the 100th anniversary of the Sakakawea statue being dedicated on the state Capitol grounds.

"We want to take the opportunity to talk about her more," said Genia Hesser, curator of exhibits for the State Historical Society of North Dakota. "She's very significant to North Dakota history and what she does stand for in a larger role."

The exhibit includes artifacts that date back to the early 1900s. At the time, the nation was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition. As the public became more aware of Sakakawea's role in assisting the journey, she became a role model for the women's suffrage movement, Hesser said.

The North Dakota Federation of Women's Clubs decided to honor Sakakawea at that time by embarking on a fundraising campaign for a state statue, said Mark Halvorson, curator of collections research for the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Neither a portrait nor or a good physical description of Sakakawea existed, so the State Historical Society worked with the federation and the tribes to create as accurate of a statue as possible.

One of Sakakawea's descendants, Hannah Levings, also known as Mink, served as the statue's model. The clothing she wore is in the center of the exhibit.

After five years of fundraising and creating the statue, North Dakota's Sakakawea statue was dedicated in a ceremony on Oct. 13, 1910, on the Capitol grounds. The 8-foot-tall, 875-pound bronze statue of Sakakawea and her baby son, Jean Baptiste, stands outside the Heritage Center.

The exhibit honoring this history is an opportunity to show off North Dakota's contribution to the legacy that is Sakakawea, Halvorson said.

"She has such an enduring legacy as a symbol of courage, of women's rights, of that indomitable spirit to explore the American West," he said.

Sakakawea remains popular among North Dakotans today. In a recent Forum poll, readers selected her over actor Josh Duhamel and football star Phil Hansen as someone who should receive the state's highest honor, the Rough Rider Award.

Although historians know few facts about Sakakawea, she has a strong mythology that people can identify with, Hesser said.

Visitors to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn are as aware of Sakakawea as they are of Lewis and Clark, said David Borlaug, president of the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.

"The very first question an awful lot of people still ask is, 'How do you pronounce her name here?'" Borlaug said.

After that, people want to know how significant she was to the Lewis and Clark story, he said.

She made a significant contribution, but not how most people think, Borlaug said.

"The stereotypical image of her pointing the way as the guide is not correct," he said.

Rather, she served as an interpreter and was integral when meeting with the Shoshone people and foraging for food, he said.

"She's one of the key elements that makes this the great compelling story that it," Borlaug said.

"Creating Sakakawea" first launched in October 2010 but moved into storage six months later due to construction at the Heritage Center.

The exhibit will remain open at the Heritage Center through September and then travel to other museums across the state.

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.