(WOMENSENEWS)–The good relationships with native peoples enjoyed by explorers Lewis and Clark on their expedition westward across the Great Plains were attributable to the 17-year-old Native American woman traveling with them. Newborn son on her back, she was interpreter, laundress, cook, food gatherer, nurse and doctor. Most important, Sacajawea’s presence among the 32 white men signaled, to potentially wary eyes, that the traveling party was not hostile.

William Clark’s journals record that at the turn of the year 1806, scouts reported a beached whale on the seashore some distance ahead. As he organized a party, hoping to secure some whale oil, “Shabono, (the French guide to whom Sacajawea had been sold), and his Indian woman were very impatient to be permitted to go. She observed that she had traveled a long way with us to see the great waters and now that that monstrous fish was also to be seen, she thought it very hard that she could not be permitted to see either. (She had never yet been to the ocean.)” No one recorded Sacajawea’s reaction.

Like Sojourner Truth, Sacajawea became both legend and symbol, reflecting the needs of the people who kept her name alive more than the character or deeds of the woman who saw the great waters. White feminists a century later had their own reactions to (or uses for) the story. During a women’s rights convention in Oregon in 1905, a monument to Sacajawea was unveiled during a ceremony that featured Susan B. Anthony urging that state’s women to lead the way to liberty, as the “guide” had done. On the other hand, as contemporary writer Paula Gunn Allen has pointed out, the idealized statues of her that populate the West can be interpreted to mean that the right to be on Native lands was given to white people by Sacajawea.

Louise Bernikow is writer and historian based in New York. She is also the author of seven books and numerous magazine articles. She travels to campuses and community groups with a lecture and slide show about activism called “The Shoulders We Stand on: Women as Agents of Change.”