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Pocahontas, Sacagawea, and the MMIW

Many think of the Native Americans of the past, such as Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull. Many people picture teepees, buffalo, and the Great Plains. However, indigenous peoples used to dwell all across this country.

What would you say if I told you that there are 574 Federally recognized tribes within the United States? I had known that there are still some indigenous peoples in this country but I had not realized that there were so many. Growing up, I lived and attended college near the Cherokees' old homelands and last council ground at Red Clay State Park, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. In visiting the park the story that is told is one of a time long ago, but not one of a continued legacy (though the flags of the modern Cherokee bands still fly at the park). The history textbooks that we are schooled on as children often lead us to believe falsely that there are no longer Natives in the land.

As March is Women's History month, I figured that I would talk about two of the most well known Native American women, Pocahontas and Sacagawea (Sacajawea). However, the stories especially of these two Indigenous women have been heavily romanticized. They have been idealized much like the stories of the white men who made them famous.

The first is Pocahontas. She was born into the Powhatan nation, on land that would later become the colony of Virginia. Like some of us, Pocahontas went by her nickname more often than her full name.

"Born about 1596, her real name was Amonute, and she also had the more private name Matoaka. Pocahontas was her nickname, which depending on who you ask means “playful one" or “ill-behaved child.” "(1)

Pocahontas was born to Chief Powhatan (also known as Wahunsenacawh) and one of his wives.

"As the daughter of the paramount chief Powhatan, custom dictated that Pocahontas would have accompanied her mother, who would have gone to live in another village, after her birth (Powhatan still cared for them). However, nothing is written by the English about Pocahontas' mother. Some historians have theorized that she died during childbirth, so it is possible that Pocahontas did not leave like most of her half-siblings. Either way, Pocahontas would have eventually returned to live with her father Powhatan and her half-siblings once she was weaned. Her mother, if still living, would then have been free to remarry." (2)

On 14 May 1607, the Englishmen of the Virginia Company landed on Jamestowne Island. Pocahontas along with some of the other Natives befriended the settlers and traded for things with them. She would carry messages from her father to the settlers. Pocahontas also accompanied others "bringing food and furs to trade for hatchets and trinkets" (3). Pocahontas became friends with John Smith.

However, it was not all peace all the time for the settlers or the natives.

"Unfortunately, relations with the Powhatans worsened. Necessary trading still continued, but hostilities became more open. Pocahontas’s visits to the fort became less frequent. Smith led a trading party to Werowocomoco in January 1609, and when negotiations with Powhatan turned sour, Pocahontas snuck through the nighttime woods to Smith’s camp to warn him that her father had ordered Smith killed. He and his men escaped, but in October 1609, Smith was badly injured by a gunpowder explosion and was forced to return to England." (3)

According to Historic Jamestowne, Powhatan led his braves to lay siege to the Jamestowne fort, which set in motion the starving time of 1609 (mentioned previously in my article: Of Scarcity and Plenty). The siege was only the beginning of the first Anglo-Powhatan war. This war would have consequences which were felt by Powhatan's own family. Pocahontas was captured by Captain Samuel Argall in the spring of 1613. Argall was hoping to gain in the ransom, "English prisoners he [Powhatan] held, the arms and tools that the Indians had stolen, and some corn." (4) Eventually, Powhatan sent part of the ransom and told Argall and the others to treat his daughter well.

"Powhatan agreed to pay the rest of the ransom, but Pocahontas was destined to stay with the English and marry [John] Rolfe. Rolfe was a religious man who agonized for weeks over the proposition of marrying a “strange wife,” a non-Christian “heathen.” After Pocahontas converted to Christianity, Rolfe married her “for the good of the plantation, the honor of our country, for the glory of God, for mine own salvation….” She was baptized and took the English name Rebecca, “mother of two peoples.”

Powhatan gave his consent to this peace-making marriage and sent Opachisco, Pocahontas’s maternal uncle, and two of “his sons” to witness the ceremony held in Jamestown’s church on April 5, 1614. A general peace and a spirit of goodwill between the English and the Indians resulted." (4)

After their wedding, Rolfe and Pocahontas were sent to England as model citizens and part of the Virginia Company's propaganda. They circulated among the elite of London society. However, Pocahontas passed away and was buried at Gravesend, England. This was just as she and Rolfe were starting the journey home. "Rolfe left his son in the care of a guardian in England and returned to his adopted home." (5) John Rolfe would marry again, and later die in 1622.

Secondly, I want to tell the story of Sacagawea. Most of us know the story of Sacagawea accompanying and guiding the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery. But do you know about her life before Lewis and Clark?

"Though spelled numerous ways in the journals of expedition members, Sacagawea is generally believed to be a Hidatsa name (Sacaga means “bird” and wea means “woman”). In that case, the third syllable starts with a hard g, as there is no soft g in the Hidatsa language. However, many Shoshone Indians maintain that it is a Shoshone name meaning “boat launcher” and spell and pronounce it “Sacajawea."

Sacagawea was born circa 1788 in what is now the state of Idaho. When she was approximately 12 years old, Sacagawea was captured by an enemy tribe, the Hidatsa, and taken from her Lemhi Shoshone people to the Hidatsa villages near present-day Bismarck, North Dakota. Following her capture, French-Canadian trader Toussaint Charbonneau, who was living among the Hidatsa, claimed Sacagawea as one of his wives." (6)

Stolen from her people as a young girl, she was forced to become a Minatare (Hidatsa) captive until she was sold to a fur trader named Toussaint Charbonneau. Sacagawea became one of Toussaint's many wives, along with another Shoshone captive named Otter Woman. Soon Sacagawea was pregnant.

In 1804, a group called the Corps of Discovery arrived at the village where Toussaint and Sacagawea lived. The group was in need of a translator and guide to help them negotiate with the Indigenous tribes. Sacagawea would accompany Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and the Corps of Discovery as a translator and guide (along with her husband). She would also save the Corps in several situations even while she was pregnant or carrying her son "Pomp" (also known as Jean Baptiste who she gave birth to at Fort Mandan in North Dakota) on her back.

The explorers would carry Sacagawea back to her native homelands on their trek westward. They would "On 28 July 1805" camp "on the exact spot where that attack [where she was captured] took place." (7) There she reunited with her brother Cameahwait (who she had not seen since the day of her capture), while serving as a translator as the Corps negotiated for horses in order to further facilitate their travels.

Sacagawea continued to travel with the Corps of Discovery as they reached the Pacific coast and stayed at Fort Clatsop in Astoria, Oregon during the winter of 1805-1806. She then returned with the Corps until Fort Mandan (the Corps continued on to DC to report to President Jefferson). There she passed away, her son Jean Baptiste would go to live with Clark, who raised him.

Centuries after her death, the importance of her work lives on. On 17 January 2001, President William Jefferson Clinton named Sacagawea "an honorary sergeant, regular army." (8)

Now! Some of you are probably wondering what the acronym in the title means. MMIW stands for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Everyone talks about Black Lives Matter (BLM) and it is important to remember those names, but it is also important to not forget the MMIW. Murder is the third most prevalent death for women in the Indigenous tribes.

As I wrote earlier in this article, many of us are not taught that First Peoples still exist in our country. One of the problems with that lack of education is causing is a rise in Missing and Murdured Indigenous Women. While neither of the women in our blog post were murdured, both of them could be considered part of the MMIW because they were stolen from their homelands.

There are many who are doing work to bring awareness to this problem. One individual who is trying to bring awareness is a young woman named Rosalie Fish. Rosalie is part of the Muckleshoot and Cowlitz tribes of Washington state. She started running her track meets in high school with a red handprint on her face to symbolize those whose voices have been silenced after seeing Jordan Marie Brings Three White Horses Daniel (a Lakota runner) do the same thing during the Boston Marathon. The first name that Rosalie dedicated a race to was her own aunt Alice Looney. Rosalie has continued running as part of her college career. I first learned of Rosalie's story through her TED talk:

Please join me in working to share about the MMIW. While we may not be able to do anything for those who have already died, we can do a little bit to help children escape and heal from slavery and the sex trade. Sex trafficking is only part of the larger problem of human trafficking and this is a world wide problem.

There are several agencies that work to rescue children from the sex trade. Some of them work over seas and some close to home. One of those companies is Operation Underground Railroad (OUR). ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency International) in their gift catalog has a gift called Keep Girls Safe which works to keep girls in Thailand safe from trafficking. Another one is Her Future Coalition, works to provide education for trafficking "survivors and the most vulnerable girls in India and Nepal". A fourth organization is called Hero Bands, which partners with OUR to provide bracelets to children who have been rescued by OUR with initials of the donor so that the child knows that someone is thinking about them and they are not alone.

I could tell you about so many more agencies or non-profits that are working to rescue girls (because if you haven't figured out by now, this is something that weighs heavy on my heart), but I don't have the room here - so there will be more linked below the footnotes at the end of this article.

Besides saving girls from sex trafficking, another important step to help end MMIW is education. Not just education about this problem and about other similar problems, but about the Indigenous people who dwell in this great country of ours. Education can come in the form of researching the tribes that live near you and learning about and talking with them. Another way of gaining education is through talking with interpreters at living history museums such as Colonial Williamsburg and the Oconaluftee Indian Village in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Immigrants have been encroaching on the lands of the indigenous peoples since the ships arrived at Jamestowne. This time, let us walk a mile in someone else's moccasins. As we took time in February to remember the people of color who have worked to build this country, this month let us remember those women of all colors who have also worked to establish this land.

*Picture of Pocahontas taken by the Author on a trip to Historic Jamestowne in Fall 2020




Another agency is called AnnieCannons and they work to use education to break the cycle of poverty which feeds the sex trade.

Others include:

And so many more...


Native Womens Wilderness ~ MMIW

Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women ~ MMIW


History ~ Pocahontas

Historic Jamestowne ~ Pocahontas and John Rolfe

Smithsonian Magazine ~ True Story of Pocahontas

National Women's History Museum ~ Pocahontas

National Park Service ~ Pocahontas: Her Life and Legend

Chief Powhatan:

Historic Jamestowne ~ Chief Powhatan


American Battlefield Trust ~ Sacagawea

America's Story from America's Library ~ The Story of Sacagawea

Lifelong Learning Online: The Lewis & Clark Rediscovery Project ~ Agaidika Perspective on Sacajawea

National Women's Hall of Fame ~ Sacagawea

National Women's History Museum ~ Sacagawea

National Park Service ~ Sacagawea {Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail}, Sacagawea {people}, Sacagawea {Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site}, Visual Representations of Sacagawea, Sacagawea's voice and the 19th Amendment, Statue of Sacagawea, and Sacagawea's Rest Park

The Exasperated Historian ~ Sacagawea and Lizette Charbonneau

Toussaint Charbonneau:

Find A Grave ~ Toussaint Charbonneau


Discovering Lewis & Clark ~ Cameahwait, Sacagawea, and Jean Baptiste

Wikipedia ~ Cameahwait


Otter Woman:

Rosalie Fish:

Other Articles:

Smithsonian Magazine ~ A bittersweet Homecoming

Wikipedia ~ Fort Mandan



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