Yesterday afternoon, in a small lecture hall in the School of Education, author Kenneth Thomasma stood up in front of a group of children, students and adults to tell a story about a brave young girl. He talked about how she was born in the mountains into the tribe of the “Snake People,” how she was captured and sold into slavery in her early teens and how a half-Sioux, half-French Canadian translator won her in a gambling game. This girl would later become one of the most famous Native American women in history.

Ken Srdjak
Kenneth Thomasma, author of “The Truth about Sacajawea” exchanges a dollar coin for a paper dollar with 9-year-old Emma Micketson yesterday in the School of Education. (SHUBRA OHRI/Daily)

The girl was Sacagawea, the famous companion of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Lieutenant William Clark. Sacagawea traveled with the two as they explored the Louisiana territory in the early 19th century. Thomasma — a former elementary school teacher — spoke yesterday at four separate events in and around campus, spreading what he calls “the truth about Sacagawea.”

Thomasma, the author of ten historical children’s books about young Native American children, captivated his audience yesterday as he told, in great detail, the story of Lewis and Clark and the young Shoshone woman who accompanied them.

“Children need to learn how (other) children lived back in the times when every day was a matter of survival,” he said. “They lived amazing lives. If children today could see what Indian children had to do to survive, they might look at their own lives differently.”

Thomasma said he first became interested in Sacagawea when he worked at a summer camp in Montana that was located along the original Lewis and Clark trail. After reading Lewis and Clark’s journals, he became fascinated by their expedition and especially by the Native Americans they met along the way.

Thomasma’s first children’s book told the story of Naya Nuki, a character based on one of Sacagawea’s friends, who is referred to in Lewis and Clark’s journals. Thomasma said he gets most of his book ideas from the journals and from reading about Native American tribes and that his books are unique because “nobody has taken the time to figure out how Indian people lived and what happened to children during these historical events.”

“Historical fiction about Indian children had never been done before,” he added. Thomasma’s book “The Truth about Sacagawea” was published in 1997. Thomasma wrote the book because he said Sacagawea is not given enough credit for her contributions to the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“I read the two million words Lewis and Clark wrote, and I pulled out every reference to her,” he said.

Thomasma’s book came out the same year Congress was considering replacing the Susan B. Anthony dollar with a coin bearing the likeness of Sacagawea. Thomasma said he was heavily involved in lobbying for the selection of Sacagawea for the coin.

“I sent my book to the Secretary (of the Treasury),” he said. “This is the little girl that had five major contributions (to the Lewis and Clark expedition), and we turned on her, exploited her. I said, ‘Mr. Secretary, we need to put her on a coin.’ ”

Notre Dame History Prof. Thomas Slaughter, who recently authored his own book on Sacagawea, said she is important to study because “her perspective was undoubtedly entirely different than anyone else in the expedition.”

“She was going home. Everyone else was going away from home. … Her story is much different than the story of other people in the expedition,” he said.

Slaughter said one of the most important contributions Sacagawea made to the expedition was simply her presence. “Sacagawea helped to change the masculine and military image of the expedition,” he said. He added that the Native American tribes Lewis and Clark encountered on their journey did not understand why they were traveling.

“The expedition made no sense from an Indian point of view. They weren’t traders, they weren’t a war party and they didn’t look like they were members of the same tribe. The woman was even more confusing, which was good and led a lot of Indians to treat Lewis and Clark as if they were not a war party, which was greatly to their advantage,” Slaughter said.

Despite the “five major contributions” of Sacagawea that Thomasma teaches, some Native Americans do not feel she is an important figure in their history. “I think that she’s been romanticized beyond the purpose that she actually served,” said LSA sophomore Brittany Marino, a member of the Native American Student Association and the Cree tribe.

“Beyond what I learned in school, I never really learned more about her. I’ve never been exposed to any sort of honoring or education thing that’s been focused on her,” she said.

Marino went on to say she believes the reason Sacagawea is so famous is due to her interaction with Europeans. Marino said Americans need to be taught about Native Americans who were leaders among their own people — without European interaction.

Slaughter agreed that Sacagawea’s popularity stems from her involvement with white Americans. “She is now a symbol of multicultural America,” he said. “She is part of the United States. She is not just an Indian waiting and receiving (white explorers). She is a part of the expedition. At a minimum, what she does is get into the story as (a Native American) actor rather than simply one who is acted upon,” he said.

As for Thomasma, he said he will continue to tell the story of Sacagawea. Last year’s bicentennial anniversary of the expedition has given Lewis and Clark a national spotlight, he said. “This is the time of high interest, I have to (teach this) now,” he added.

 

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