Playing the Indian Card

Monday, April 30, 2018

Sacajawea, Indian Guide

Sacajawea in Night at the Museum.
Watched Night at the Museum (2006) yesterday with the kids. A bit late for a movie review, but it was new to me. The film featured Sacajawea as a fairly major character. She is represented, as usual, as the guide for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Another character is writing a thesis about her, and describes her in these terms. Her celebrated tracking ability is then used to find the villains.

This is historically false. It is a pity that children are being taught this fake history at the movies; but they probably get the same fake history in the schools. Sacajawea did not guide Lewis and Clark; she was hired as an interpreter. On a couple of occasions, she had personal knowledge of the landscape that was helpful to the expedition, but this was not a regular thing. Yet the classic depictions have her with her arm outstretched, pointing the way.

This is a matter of the noble savage archetype. The idea is that the Indians, being “indigenous,” must have special knowledge of the landscape. After all, they are part of the land.

Being nomadic, they did move around a lot; and so they naturally would have some. But this has been exaggerated.

A similar case is that of the memorial to the War of 1812 on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. It shows an Indian figure with his finger outstretched, pointing the way to the British soldiers and the Canadian militiamen.

In this case, the “Indian guide” concept sells the Indians short. They were not guides to British troops or Canadian volunteers in that war; they were major combatants.

The War of 1812 memorial on Parliament Hill.


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