Winner by toss of a coin?

August 10, 1998|By Kristine Holmgren

RECENTLY, a seven-member citizens panel decided that the image of Sacajawea should succeed that of Susan B. Anthony on the new dollar coin.

Who are these people?

I know they are the members of an advisory panel to the U.S. Treasury Department appointed to make a recommendation to the president.

But I want to know who are they really?

Are they related to Miss America pageant judges who claim they evaluate women on intelligence and personality?

Or are they kin to the editors at Time who put Ally McBeal on the July 29 cover and called her a feminist?

If the advisory panel has its way and Sacajawea follows Susan B. Anthony into currency history, it is a jagged little pill to swallow.

A true feminist

The hard work of Susan B. Anthony is validated by the freedoms enjoyed by contemporary women. Her struggle on behalf of temperance, abolition, women's rights and suffrage left a broad wake of social reform and prosperity.

The only thing Sacajawea left behind was fodder for folklore.

Consider their differences. Anthony was the 19th-century suffrage leader whom Gertrude Stein once praised as "the mother of us all."

Sacajawea was an Indian slave who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their 1805 expedition. The only commendation she ever received is recorded in Clark's log, where he declares his admiration for her ability to do heavy labor without complaint.

She was a poor woman, a servile and obedient slave. Placing her in the same category as Anthony feels like forcing Joyce Carol Oates to spend an evening with Jacqueline Susann.

For generations, our popular folk legends have regarded Sacajawea as the Indian who guided Lewis and Clark on their expedition West. But when history is stripped to the buff, Sacajawea is exposed as the child she was, poor and exploited.

She was only 16 years old when she was kidnapped by the Hidasi tribe and sold into slavery to the explorer, Toussaint Charbonneau.

When Charbonneau joined the Louis and Clark expedition, Sacajawea came along as his common-law wife. The child she bore Charbonneau was still an infant when they joined Lewis and Clark.

According to expedition log books, she cooked for the men, foraged for them, mended and cleaned their clothes. Her time in the limelight of frontier history was short, but history cannot hide from the fact that during that time Sacajawea was little more than a handmaiden to the Lewis and Clark party.

True, she was the first woman in recorded history to cross the Rocky Mountains. But it was a journey she would never have made on her own. Sacajawea's situation was probably desperate, lonely and hopeless.

Like Pocahontas before her, Sacajawea's indentured life has been obscured by an acceptable, romantic legend that portrays our male explorers as heroes and any human chattel they owned as generous accomplices.

For generations, as we have hidden from the ugliness of slavery, the person of Sacajawea has been imagined as an adventurer; a bold and courageous beauty with native instincts who saved the expedition.

But Sacajawea was none of these things. She was a cooperative, compliant captive, skilled in the tasks assigned by the white men who controlled her fate.

The Sacajawea coin is bound to stir as much controversy as the Anthony dollar when it was minted in 1979.

This time, American women and Indians of both genders will complain about the new coin. But not because it will be too small or oddly shaped.

American Indians will protest because they have never appreciated the patronizing pseudo-recognition of our federal government.

And women will speak up because, once again, we are disappointed. Two decades after the Anthony insult, we were looking forward to the recognition.

And this time, we are ready to be called to the plate. Our bench was deep with a gang of heavy hitting, powerful women. Instead of a fantasy woman from American folklore, we wanted to see the image of a real heroine on our dollar.

This time we were looking forward to the image of a real woman appearing on a standard dollar bill. A humanitarian like Eleanor Roosevelt or Sojourner Truth. Or a great teacher like Anne Sullivan.

Personal top five

Atop my personal list would be 19th-century abolitionist Lucretia Mott along with the first female professional baseball player, Jackie Mitchell, the 20th-century author of the Equal Rights Amendment, Alice Paul; Civil War nurse, Dorothea Dix; 20th-century educator Nannie Helen Burroughs, an African-American woman who, with a shoestring and a prayer, began the day school bearing her name in Washington, D.C.

But I wasn't asked.

Instead, the Treasury Department took the advice of a group of seven citizens who came up with the frontier fantasy maiden we call Sacajawea.

Who are these people?

Kristine Holmgren is a writer, broadcast commentator and the pastor of Grace Trinity Community Church in Minneapolis.

Pub Date: 8/10/98

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