I am taking part once again in the 'Working With Translation' online course offered by FutureLearn. Yesterday, we were asked to research a famous translator in our linguist tradition and discuss our findings. While browsing the internet for an interesting subject, I came across the name Sacagawea. I had never heard of her, but the short extract from her biography was enough to entice to find out more about this fearless woman.
Sacagawea was born into the Native American tribe Shoshone and was fluent in both Shoshone and Hidatsa, two languages from different tribes. She learned the latter after being kidnapped by Hidatsa tribe members. She became an influential character in the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery expedition of 1805-06. Thomas Jefferson had petitioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to explore the unknown Northwestern part of the U.S. The objective was to study its landscape and natural resources, map out the region and establish a relationship with its inhabitants as well as a U.S. presence.
Lewis and Clark hired both Sacagawea and her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, to accompany them on the expedition after they met at the Hidatsa-Mandan settlement where Sacagawea, then six months pregnant, and Charbonneau were living. Their combined ability to speak Shoshone and French made them valuable assets to Lewis and Clark who counted on them to act as interpreters and facilitate trade with the Shoshone tribe. Beyond her capacity to interpret, Sacagawea became an essential part of the expedition because of her knowledge of the terrain and natural landscape. She helped the explorers navigate their way safely through uncharted territories, and identified the surrounding vegetation as edible or medicinal.
Accounts from members of the expedition describe Sacagawea as a calming presence, who acted as a mediator between the explorers and the Native American. This was reinforced by the presence of her newborn baby who she kept by her side during the journey. As woman and child, they provided a reassuring energy which contributed to peaceful communication between explorers and Native American and potentially avoided situations where conflict could have occurred.
Sacagawea lived a short, yet full and rich life. Her contribution to the expedition reaches much further than the role of interpreter. She used language to communicate, mediate, share, teach and connect cultures. I'm so thankful to have come across her life story. What a woman.