Statue of Sakakawea

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Long a sanctum for marble replicas of America’s white male heroes, the United States Capitol will formally admit the first statue of a minority woman today.

Lawmakers will hold an afternoon ceremony in the U.S. Capitol Building to celebrate the arrival of the statue of Sakakawea, the Shoshone Indian who shepherded the western expedition of Merriwether Lewis and William Clark twocenturies ago. The ceremony will be held in the Rotunda–the grand circular interior of the Capitol dome. And a larger celebration featuring a parade and performances by American Indian singers and dancers will take place on the Capitol grounds.

“Sakakawea is a real American hero,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, the North Dakota Democrat who helped pave the way for the statue’s arrival at the Capitol. “Her skill and courage enabled the Lewis and Clark expedition to successfully explore the American West, and it is only fitting that a woman of her character and fortitude should represent North Dakota and Statuary Hall.”

Sakakawea Also First Mother

The likeness of the trail-blazer will be the first sculpted representation of a nonwhite woman to win a permanent spot in National Statuary Hall, the semi-circular room just south of the Rotunda and the home of 97 statues representing each of the 50 states.

Each state is allowed to send two statues to the Capitol, according to the 1864 law that established the collection. Two states–Nevada and New Mexico–have so far donated only one statue. But those states are expected to contribute their second statues by the end of 2004, which would bring the collection to full capacity 140 years after the law was enacted.

The statue of Sakakawea will also be the seventh of a woman–and the first of a mother–in the collection. With her baby slung in a papoose board, Sakakawea will join the ranks of Jeannette Rankin, the first woman elected to the House of Representatives; Mother Joseph, a missionary in the early 1800s; Frances Willard, a leader of the temperance movement; Florence Sabin, a pioneer in public health; Maria Sanford, the first woman named to a professorship; and Esther Hobart Morris, a leading suffragist. Currently four statues of minorities are in the hall: three Native American men and one Hispanic man.

Sakakawea is also the second personage to represent North Dakota, which first chose a replica of its former governor, John Burke, to stand in Statuary Hall. Her arrival is timed to mark the 200th anniversary of the arrival of Lewis and Clark to the land that is now known as North Dakota.

At an event in Bismarck, N.D., earlier this month that kicked off the statue’s journey to Washington, D.C., Tex Hall, chair of a Native American association called Three Affiliated Tribes, said Sakakawea’s likeness would take its “rightful place” alongside those of this country’s leaders and pioneers. “It is appropriate and fitting that Sakakawea begins her second historic journey, eastward from this place along the Missouri river,” he said, according to a statement issued during the send-off ceremony.

Nevada to Install Winnemucca

Another statue of a minority woman may soon follow on Sakakawea’s heels. Nevada has chosen a replica of Sarah Winnemucca as its second statue. A 19th century Paiute, Winnemucca founded the state’s first school for American Indians and served as a translator between American Indians and settlers. She also wrote an autobiography and testified before Congress before dying in 1891 at the age of 47.

New Mexico plans to add a statue of another minority by the name of Pope, an American Indian warrior credited with leading the Pueblo revolt of 1680.

Sakakawea was abducted by a neighboring Indian tribe as a young girl, according to journal entries penned by members of the expedition. She later married Touissant Charbonneau, a French-Canadian trader hired in 1804 to serve as an interpreter for the expedition, called the Corpse of Discovery. But Sakakawea proved to be at least as valuable as her husband. She served as a guide, interpreter and peacemaker between the traveling members of the expedition and the Shoshone Indian tribes during their journey across the territory acquired by the Louisiana Purchase and through the Pacific Northwest.

Sakakawea gave birth to her son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, in the midst of the expedition and carried him on a cradleboard on her back, which is how the statue depicts her. She returned home in 1806 and is said to have died from a fever in 1812, although historians still debate her fate. The spelling and meaning of her name, which is assumed to be an Anglicized version of the Indian words meaning bird and woman, is also a point of dispute.

The bronze image of the mother and child stirred a minor controversy on Capitol Hill, where some objected to the two-person statue because the baby in the papoose meant North Dakota would technically have three people, rather than the customary two, represented in the Capitol. But Rep. Pomoroy sought and won a special exemption for the statue after it was agreed that only Sakakawea’s name, and not her son’s, would appear on the plaque at the base of the statue.

The statue is a reproduction of the bronze original in North Dakota, which features Sakakawea and her baby son facing westward to the land she would help open. Dedicated and unveiled on Oct. 13, 1910, the statue now stands at the entrance to headquarters of the State Historical Society.

The replica is similar in weight and height to the original statue. It weighs 875 pounds and stands almost 11 feet tall atop its 4,600-lb. granite base. It will remain on display in the Rotunda for six months before moving to its permanent home in Statuary Hall.

Allison Stevens covers politics in Washington, D.C.

For more information:

State Historical Society of North Dakota–
Fast facts: Sakakawea Statue Project