ROSE ANN ABRAHAMSON
Rose Ann Abrahamson is a Lemhi Shoshone Indian living in Idaho. She is a descendant of Cameawait. This interview occurred in 2003 near Salmon, Idaho.
Who exactly are the Lemhi Shoshone?
The Lemhi Shoshone is one of the many tribes of the Shoshone nation. Historically the Shoshone people encompassed twelve states. Today they encompass seven states. But the Lemhi Shoshone is the most northern of the Shoshone nation. They consider themselves unique. They were isolated from other tribes.
Historians and anthropologists such as Krober put Native Americans into cultural regions and he put the Lemhi into a group called the Great Basin. That’s obviously a problem, because they are not only Great Basin but are also Plateau and Plains. The only thing they share is a linguistic tie. They have different heroines, different mythologies, different leaders, different perspectives on life, and they are very much influenced by their environments and their alliances.
How important were the salmon to your people?
Here in this area we were also people of the river and received our health and strength and life source from the salmon, and this is the furthest the salmon would come inland in the western United States. So the Lemhi Shoshone developed their concepts or symbols of life after the salmon.
We are the Agaidikas. That is our traditional name for ourselves, and that translates into “salmon eaters.”
Talk about that first meeting in 1805 with the Shoshone and Meriwether Lewis.
Although these people [Lewis & Clark] were strangers, and we had never seen a white man, it is interesting to note that we were still apprehensive because we didn’t know about their alliances.
Lewis and Clark were our first white men. Lewis was taught by Sacagawea to say tivo boin [white man]; and to this day I can’t believe that he left her behind with Clark when he was seeking out the Shoshone. It just totally amazes me!
He must have asked her, “What should I do when I approach your people?” And she knew he must have worn long sleeves all of the time, because she told him, “pull up your sleeves, point to your white skin and say tivo boin.”
And of course he probably had just a quick lesson and in his effort to quickly obtain horses, took off with his men and approached my people pointing to his white skin saying ta^hve vee boin ta^hve vee boin. He was saying, “Look at the sun. Look at the sun.” Our people must have been somewhat amused, but not too sure about him, and it was interesting in that context.
Is it Sacajawea or Sacagawea, and why does it matter to you?
There’s a big controversy about her name throughout the country. Among our people we give our children their names when they are about three years of age. Before that they are just called “small child.” The elders would observe what they were doing. They would be named either by the maternal grandparent or the paternal grandparent. Even to this day the name giving is practiced.
They say the name is prophetic and comes back and serves you in adulthood. I was always told what her name was and it was “Sacajawea.”
A “wea” is a conical basket, and it was used by the women for gathering and storing. And “sacaj” – you are saying, “that is her burden,” and so that is what she was named, and she must have had her ears pierced. It was just a great, fun time when you get your name.
We believe when she was captured by the Hidatsa, they gave her a name that was similar to the one she already had. We supposed that they had asked her name. They changed it to their own way of understanding. For example, we did the same thing here with our own captives. We believe that her name was changed by the Hidatsa.
Different tribes have different ways of speaking, and for the Shoshone there are no ‘L’s or certain letters, and so when we would capture people, we would change the name to fit our language.
Recently a young non-Indian girl was captured, and her name was Elizabeth, and when she was captured, her name was changed to Augustine. So are you going to call her Elizabeth or Augustine? Are you going to call her Sacajawea or are you going to call her the other names?
It is interesting to note the man who cared most about her on this expedition, who helped raise her children, who looked out for her welfare, who cared about her, was William Clark. It must have been very poignant for him to write about this in his cache book. This cache book was found in 1925 and it said, “Sacajawea dead.” And he wrote her name with a ‘j.’
The white historians continue to insist on dealing with Sacagawea or Sakagawea, but yet here Clark wrote “Sacajawea dead.” And these historians are using the time period of when she died but giving no credibility to the way he spelled her name.
What did Sacajawea do for the Expedition?
People ask how do we know what she contributed? I know that these white men wouldn’t write, because men did not value the identity of women during that time period. I think Stephen Ambrose dug research as to Lewis’ perspective. Lewis was all business, a bureaucrat; documentation, “lets get the job done, this is for the country.” I don’t think he would be the type of man to write, “she helped us today with food, she did this for us…” He was all business and his efforts needed to be documented.
I believe it wasn’t really documented. When she started out with this expedition and she started to move toward her homeland, she became, once again, led by the strength of her cultural heritage which is Agaidikas. She returned back to her nomadic ways.
As you know, she was living with a sedentary people. They had different ways of living. The white man had become accustomed to eating their [Hidatsa] vegetables and their garden food. It wasn’t very much different from their own food. But now they come to a land that was untouched, pristine, and she knew how to survive in that land, and that’s when who she was and what she was came out.
She knew where to find berries, to find roots. She probably tanned and showed them how to procure and tan hides.
Throughout the journals she pointed out critical points, land markers. There was so much that she did. The most powerful moment.was when she and her husband were in that boat, and it could have turned over, and she could have lost her life and that of her baby, and she must have seen Lewis just frantic. In fact from what I understand they had to hold Lewis back from jumping in the river to save the people and the boat and his documents. And she immediately started to save the documents, calmly gathering what they needed.
There are many things in her life that occurred that were not by choice for her but she faced those challenges and moved forward. She never complained about fatigue, she never complained about the insects, and the journal is full of the men’s complaints. She persevered.
How remarkable was it that Sacajawea was re-united with her brother?
When they ran out of river and Lewis stood on that Lemhi pass and saw ranges of mountains – not a range of mountains, ranges – as far as the eye could see, he knew that he had to have those horses.
My people had 700 horses at that time. Their first sighting was the Shoshone on what Lewis described as “the elegant horse”.
Was it destiny? She didn’t know if her people had survived. She met her friend so she knew her friend survived and made it back home.
And then when she saw her brother, that’s a very powerful moment. There has been some controversy whether he was her cousin or her brother, but he was her brother. You don’t go in and disrupt a very important meeting. I lost my brother in 1994 and regardless of an important meeting, I would jump up and grab my brother, and I would cry, too.
She must have thought all of her family was dead when they were attacked. Four men and four women were killed, little boys were killed. All that blood shed, she must have thought the worst. Then to actually find that one member of her family. It must have been an incredible experience.
Was it fate? Was it meant to happen that the chief was her brother? And again, she was utilized. If those men could not have gotten those horses, they would have had to turn back. But their expedition was able to continue.
In the state of Idaho they collected over 25% of the specimens, both plant and animal, sent back to President Jefferson. And it was here among the Lemhi Shoshone people – Idaho’s first Idahoans – that the greatest moment of that expedition happened. If anything, it allowed that expedition to move forward.
Why is the Lemhi valley so important to you?
I believe in about 1850 the Mormons came into the valley and named one of the rivers after King Lemhi in the Book of Mormon. It was just easier for the white man to pronounce Lemhi than to pronounce Agaidikas.
There are two rivers that we consider to be our life source, the Salmon River and the Lemhi River. And as you can see here, we are surrounded by our sacred mountains. We believe that our site is very powerful as it is the site of the Continental Divide where the flows of the rivers break off into two directions. We believe this is the heart of our lives and our people.
And it is very important to us because generations upon generations of Lemhi Shoshone have lived here and we believe that the top-most layers of the earth are the dust of our ancestors. As you know, they are buried in particular places; but for us, just to walk where they have walked is very powerful and sacred to us.
We are the furthest, most northern tribe. We are the people of Sacajawea. We are a very proud people.
What is the importance of the Sacajawea Interpretive Center to your people?
Our people smoked the pipe with your people, the most sacred ceremony you can do, and a promise was made. I know that this Center is the beginning of that promise.
Our people were led from this valley, crying in 1907. Maybe you can allow us to come home and take care of her dreams and hopes for her people, to take care of our homeland, to take care of the bones of her mother, her brother, her father and her sister. This is where we belong. Maybe that is what the legacy of the Lewis and Clark expedition is all about.
Today we are planting the seeds. This is just the beginning. And when we planted that seed in that dedication ground breaking ceremony, a little bud has burst from that seed; and that is the lodge we see. It takes all of us working together to see the vision and see that dream. This site can be our legacy, Idaho’s legacy for the next 100 years. Maybe life will be better for them too. We plant the seed, set the pace for future generations to come.
We want to remind the world that we are still here, that she has a people. We are her people and there were promises made to her people. This center here is the beginning of that.