Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Another Book

I am nearing the end of a book -- Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose. The subtitle is Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. It may sound dry but it has been one of the best books I've read in quite a while. By the end of chapter one I felt like I had a new friend, the kind of friend that makes life warm, comfortable, good. Each day I look forward to bedtime to pick up the story and return to the hardships, adventures and miraculous excitement of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

It's been a fascinating book full of history, politics, ethnology, archaic medical knowledge, greed, deceit, perseverance, ingenuity, adventure, suffering, wisdom, fraternity and good luck.

I have a good impression of Thomas Jefferson but the book has rattled my opinion of him. He saw Native Americans as savages who could be civilized and made citizens. He saw Blacks as incapable of being elevated to be worthy of citizenship and thought Blacks should be freed but not by his generation. He vocalized some noble thoughts but was an astute politician seeking power and empire. He was human and greatly flawed like all of us.

Somehow, in high school or through popular media, I learned Sacagawea was a guide to the expedition. Not true. She was a fifteen year old slave. She was captured by one Indian tribe and later sold or lost in a bet to a French Canadian trader who lived in a Native American settlement. Lewis employed the man with the agreement that he take Sacagawea, one of his two wives, as a translator. The man left his second Native American wife and took only Sacagawea who was six months pregnant.

I am amused at Lewis's plan. Sacagawea would translate Shoshone into Hidatsa, the language of the tribe that had captured her four years earlier. Her husband Charbonneau, who was 45 years old, could understand a little Hidatsa. He would translate the Hidatsa in French to a man named Jessaume who spoke a little English. Lewis was an optimist to expect an accurate commnication.

Lewis asked Sacagawea the Shoshone word for "white man" and she replied "tab-ba-bone". Lewis planned on approaching the Shoshones saying this word. The problem was the Shoshones had no word for "white man" having never seen anyone other then Native Americans. The scholarly guess is that tab-ba-bone meant "stranger" or "enemy". But, somehow Lewis spoke the word and lived to write about his initial encounter with the Shoshones.

Lewis and Clark journals are full of encounters with wildlife. They passed heard of bison over twelve miles in length. Lewis was bold when first encountering grizzly bears but quickly learned to respect their power. I find their wastefulness and slaughter of wildlife appalling. They would kill a bison and take only the tongue and the hump. On one occasion they killed twenty-seven deer or elk for nineteen men. The majority of the meat was left the next morning as they continued their journey.

Media fiction has portrayed Native Americans as savages quick to kill but the Lewis and Clark journals tell a different story. They would have perished had they not had the help of Native Americans.

I've been most intrigued by Sacagawea. I wonder what she felt? How did she cope? She was a teenage slave, gave birth to a son, the only female in a group of strange men, endured two years of cold, hunger, heat and other hardships during the journey while suffering from a venereal disease. Lewis, Clark and the men of the Corps of Discovery were amazing but, in my opinion, Sacagawea was far more amazing and intriguing. I've been researching a book about her life and have found one that I want to purchase.

It's a cliche but I would give my right arm to have been on that expedition.


Blogger Anvilcloud said...

There is a long novel called "Sacagawea". Cuppa read it long ago.

8/18/2011 04:43:00 AM  
Blogger Regenia said...

From what I have read a Black man was first educated because two white men made a bet about whether or not Blacks were CAPABLE of learning!!

As far as slaves go, I have been reading several books I intend to write about. I have never understood why so many insist that our country was founded on Christian principals. When you really study it more and more, it is a ridiculous notion, at least based on actions. (And that is not to mention the genocide of Native American Indians.)

I once heard an excellent female humorist. She contends that Lewis and Clark should get no credit; that the credit should go to Sacagawea. As she said, we all know a man can't find anything. It had to be Sacagawea! (I personally agree with her, as I am sure every other woman would!)

8/20/2011 05:00:00 AM  

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