December 01, 2010

Review of The Spirit of Sacajawea

Here's another documentary I watched on PBS last week for Native American Heritage Month:

The Spirit of Sacajawea (Lewis & Clark/Sacagawea/Sakakawea)One of the most revered women in American history, Sacajawea has been romanticized and often misinterpreted by non-natives. Revolving around interviews with her tribal peoples as well as recognized historians, this documentary examines the many controversies regarding her life, how her role in the Lewis & Clark journey impacted her tribes, and how they are surviving today.Documentary Premiere on PBSCharlotte filmmakers Beverly Penninger and Alyson Young of Naka Productions, Inc. are pleased to announce The Spirit of Sacajawea will air nationally via PBS Plus in November 2010.

Over two hundred years after the storied Lewis & Clark expedition to the Pacific, this new documentary retells the story of the Indian woman who traveled with the Corps of Discovery, carrying her infant son across the country on her back. The Spirit of Sacajawea reexamines the life and legacy of this woman whose image adorns more monuments than any other woman in US history, this time from the point of view of her own Native American people. Through a mix of interviews, footage shot along the trail, the original Lewis & Clark journals, and an original score by Native American artists, the Naka Productions team has endeavored to tell Sacajawea’s story in a way that both adheres to fact and reaches beyond—to the larger truths of westward expansion and its impact on Native Americans past and present.

The team’s hope is that the film will inspire “an honest exploration of American history. As a nation, we need to realize and acknowledge out loud that native peoples play into that history in much greater depth than what has traditionally been depicted."

To date, The Spirit of Sacajawea has earned two Emmy awards, one for Best Historical Documentary and one for Best Editing, a bronze Telly Award and a Gracie Allen Award for Best Mid-length Documentary.
Some facts noted in the documentary:

Sacagawea BiographyAt the age of about sixteen she married a French trapper, Toussaint Charbonneau, who was also concurrently married to another Shoshone woman (he had purchased both from the Hidatsa as slaves). Sacagawea was pregnant with their first child when the Corps of Discovery arrived in the area to spend the winter of 1804/5. Needing someone to interpret the Hidatsa language, Lewis and Clark interviewed Charbonneau for the job. Although they were not overly impressed with him, the deal was sealed when they discovered that Sacagawea spoke Shoshone, an added bonus. She would become invaluable in her role as interpreter.

Sacagawea gave birth to a son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, on February 11, 1805 while staying with the party at Fort Mandan. She would carry the infant throughout the entire trip to the Pacific Ocean and back. This had a very salubrious effect for the party—native tribes spotting the expedition knew that war parties didn't generally travel with a mother and child, and would therefore approach in a friendly manner. Undoubtedly this dispelled quite a bit of friction with the people they met throughout the excursion.

Contrary to a common romantic view, Sacagawea did not act as a "guide" per se on the main part of the trip; her knowledge of the land was limited to the areas in which she grew up. Once the party was past her former Shoshone settlement, her knowledge of the land was no greater than that of the rest of the group. She did however perform well as a "pilot" in the North Dakota/Montana area; for example, she was able to help the group get a bearing on the return trip by pointing out Bozeman Pass.

Her main duties were as a translator, and this worked in a very circuitous way. For example, with the Shoshone, she would translate into Hidatsa to her husband Charbonneau, who would then translate into French (he knew little English, but several others in the party knew French). The value of having Sacagawea as a Shoshone translator was proved when they reached her old village, and she was reunited with her brother, Cameahwait, who had by that time become a tribal leader. This smoothed the way in the negotiation to obtain much-needed horses from the Shoshone.

As recorded in the expedition's journals for May 14, 1805, Sacagawea proved crucial to the success of the project when her husband Charbonneau capsized a pirogue the group was using to make its way upriver. Unable to swim, Charbonneau flew into a panic and was unable to help right the situation; Sacagawea therefore calmly went about collecting items which had been lost into the river: instruments, trade items and—perhaps most important, at least to future generations—the water-sodden pages of the journals themselves.
Some people quoted in the film speak about her:

Who was Sacagawea, and how did she aid the expedition?

Rob's review

The Spirit of Sacajawea opens with the ubiquitous flute music, which is annoying. Please, makers of Native-themed documentaries: Give us something other than flute music next time.

The documentary is roughly divided between Sacagawea's own story, the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the continued existence of the tribes met along the way. This seems like about the right mix.

The Spirit of Sacajawea shows us a plethora of Sacagawea statues and paintings. Paradoxically, these demonstrate that we don't know much about her--that she's become a semi-mythical character.

A nice touch is that most of the speakers are women who are descendants, relatives, or experts on some aspect of her life and times. Only a couple are men.

The documentary doesn't shy away from ticklish subjects: whether she was Shoshone or Hidatsa, the spelling and pronunciation of her name, when and where she was buried, etc. It doesn't give credence to claims that she was romantically involved with Clark or that she lived to an old age.

The glorification of Sacagawea

Despite a couple claims that Native history is complex and not comforting, The Spirit of Sacajawea mostly glorifies Sacagawea. The film praises her toughness, strength, and chutzpah. It's bookended by two over-the-top statements: "She changed history" and "arguably the most important American Indian woman in American history."

Really? Let's review what she actually did for the expedition. 1) Fished a few items out of the river. 2) Found some roots to supplement the meals. 3) Translated the language of one or two tribes. 4) Pointed out an easier route a couple times.

Was she essential to the expedition? No. Was she its most valuable member? No. Did she do as much as the men, who hunted for food, carried heavy supplies, paddled the boats upriver, etc.? No. Where are the statues to the 17th or 24th man of the expedition, who undoubtedly did as much as she did?

The glorification reaches its apotheosis when the film recounts the boat incident. Someone says Sacagawea's tribal mindset gave her the presence of mind, put her in the moment, to rescue the items in the river. As if everyone else would've let the items sink and only she had enough foresight to act.

More likely she just happened to be near the boat when it spilled. Anyone would've saved the sinking items because, well, that's what you do when you're hauling valuable supplies through the wilderness. In other words, her effort probably was a lucky coincidence, not a profound testament to her Native abilities.

Expedition good or bad?

In talking about her determination, The Spirit of Sacajawea glosses over a key point. She was more like a slave than a wife to her husband Charbonneau. He impregnated her when she was 15 or so, which would make her a child-bride and possibly a rape victim. It's not clear she had any choice about going on the expedition. She probably did whatever her lord and master told her to do.

Someone in the film calls her a heroine. What, for obeying orders? A real heroine might've sabotaged the expedition to protect her people. Or run away to avoid a life of drudgery and early death. Simply carrying on and doing one's duty isn't enough to make one a hero.

In talking about her importance, The Spirit of Sacajawea glosses over another key point. Namely, whether the Lewis and Clark expedition helped or hurt Indians. Would tribes have been better off if Sacagawea had died along the way? If the expedition had failed? Quite possibly.

The expedition did little for Indians except further their decimation by disease and conquest by colonizers. If the "opening" of the West had been delayed a few years, the Indians would've had more time to develop a resistance to germs. And to put aside their differences and organize a common defense. They've might've grown strong enough to stymie the waves of settlers permanently.

The film ignores the real reason we "honor" Sacagawea. Like Pocahontas and the Indians at the first Thanksgiving, she bolsters the American myth of greatness. Her story tells us that people of every stripe worked in harmony to build this grand country of ours. That whites and Indians were partners in settling the untamed wilderness and turning it into a "shining city upon a hill."

In other words, that everyone did good and no one did bad. That Euro-Americans didn't demonstrate their immorality by stealing land, breaking treaties, and committing genocide. That we have nothing to feel guilty about as long as we remember noble Sacagawea.


So..."she changed history"? I think history would've been the same if she hadn't existed. "The most important American Indian woman"? I'm not sure she belongs in the top 100 Indian woman except as a symbol of other women. She's arguably the most overrated Indian woman in history...the one who least needs another statue, book, or film about her.

I give The Spirit of Sacajawea a 7.5 of 10 for telling her story well. But I subtract points because it doesn't address the subjects I've raised. It could've done more to discuss why we honor Sacagawea and whether she deserves it.

For more on Sacagawea, see 2011 Sacagawea Dollar Reverse Unveiled and A Holiday for Sacagawea?


Stephen Bridenstine said...

As someone who worked at her "hometown" the Knife River Indian Villages in North Dakota, I can assure you the myth of Sacagawea is alive and well.

She's right up there with Pocahontas as a historical figure about whom so much has been written yet we know so very little about her.

Beverly said...

I came across your review by happenstance. As the co-producer of the documentary, while I don't agree with all of your points, I do appreciate your points of view and your thoughtful and thorough commentary.'
On the subject of the music, I see what you mean, but help me understand what others choices would have been appropriate. Certainly not fiddle or ukelele. Mary's tasteful flute playing and Jim Brock's percussion seem to be a good fit to me for the subject and tone. Would love to know what you see as viable alternatives.

Rob said...

A fiddle might work since someone on the expedition may have played one, Beverly. But not a ukelele. ;-)

I'd suggest something that sounds tribal but nontraditional. Anything but the hoary cliché of traditional flute music.