Why not Sacajawea? Taking exception

August 17, 1998|By Patricia A. McGuire

A WEEK ago on this page, writer Kristine Holmgren harshly denounced the selection of Sacajawea, the American Indian JTC Shoshoni woman, who accompanied Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their 1805 expedition, to represent the ideal of liberty on the new dollar coin.

Ms. Holmgren pointed out that Sacajawea was a slave who had no choice in making the trip. The writer raised many questions about the selection process, including asking several times "Who are these people?" referring to the members of the Dollar Coin Design Advisory Committee that chose Sacajawea's likeness for the coin.

A diverse committee

I am one of "these people" appointed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin to participate in the first-ever such citizens' advisory panel. Our racially and politically diverse eight-member group included a member of Congress, the director of the U.S. Mint, an artist, an architect, an expert in numismatics, the Smithsonian Institute's undersecretary, a renowned leader in arts and humanities, a businesswoman and the president of a women's college.

The committee was formed in response to a congressional directive to replace the Susan B. Anthony dollar because of the design flaws that generally led the public to reject the coin. Congress authorized the Treasury secretary to come up with a new design, gold in color with a distinctive edge.

Secretary Rubin charged the citizens' committee with the task of recommending a design that depicted one or more women, not a living person.

The committee discussed keeping Susan B. Anthony on the redesigned coin, but we decided that a new female figure would be consistent with our mandate.

Members of the public gave many recommendations for the coin, including 17 oral presentations to the committee. Among many historic women, the committee considered Eleanor Roosevelt, former Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine, Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low, abolitionist and underground railroad agent Harriet Tubman, pioneer aviatrix Bessie Coleman, unnamed women astronauts, world-renowned singer Marian Anderson and Sacajawea.

While each of the historic women captures some portion of the American imagination, we repeatedly returned to Sacajawea, whose story embodies the continuous national struggle for liberty, freedom and peace.

True, we would never have known Sacajawea's name or deeds had she not first been enslaved by another American Indian tribe, later claimed as a bride by Toussaint Charbonneau in a gambling party and then required to accompany her husband on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

But most heroic deeds are not born of some perfectly crafted life circumstances; rather, true heroism arises in precisely the worst kinds of situations in which the hero prevails over trials.

Sacajawea triumphed over slavery and hardship; she willingly shared her language, her food-gathering skills and her knowledge of the topography of the Rocky Mountains and Missouri watershed. She was bound in time by her cultural condition, but she endures today as a genuine frontier hero for all Americans.

Patricia A. McGuire is president of Trinity College in Washington.

Pub Date: 8/17/98

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