Identity Crisis: Sacajawea's descendants, 200 years later

Drawn to her homeland, they often don't have a full grasp of its history
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SALMON, Idaho - Darrell and Loreen Tendoy didn't intend their move to this central Idaho town earlier this year to hold any significance.

To them, Salmon was just a decent place to rear a family, 200 miles from the Fort Hall Reservation and a town that Darrell's grandfather, Emory Tendoy, fondly described as a fishing and hunting paradise where he once lived.

But the Tendoys' move was loaded with meaning.

For nearly 100 years, ever since the U.S. government forced the Lemhi Shoshone onto the arid Fort Hall Reservation with other Shoshone and Bannock tribes, their descendants have been returning to Salmon and the Lemhi Valley along the Montana border.

It's as if the Salmon River pulses through their veins.

Darrell is the great-great-great-great-grandson of Tendoy, the last chief of the Lemhi Shoshone before the tribe lost its federal recognition in the move to Fort Hall in 1907.

But he barely knows that history, including the fact that the Lemhi Shoshone were the people of Sacajawea, the young woman who acted as an interpreter for Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and helped the explorers gain the horses and the Shoshone guide they needed to get through the treacherous Bitterroot Mountains.

It was 200 years ago Friday - on Aug. 12, 1805 - that the historic expedition sent by President Jefferson first entered Sacajawea's homeland, which would become Idaho, at Lemhi Pass. And Wednesday will mark the 200th anniversary of Sacajawea's brief reunion with her people.

"I don't know much about it," Darrell acknowledges.

Loreen, whose ancestry is Bannock and Shoshone, says Lemhi elders back in Fort Hall are happy the young couple chose to live in Salmon, which the last Lemhis left in 1991.

"You can see it in their faces," she says.

But Darrell says their motives were simple.

"We didn't come up here to gain anything, just to make a new life for ourselves. It feels good here."

Sacajawea's saga: The Lemhi Shoshone, whose good graces were so pivotal to the success of Lewis and Clark, have not fared well in the 200 years since the expedition.

No longer a federally recognized tribe but part of the Shoshone-Bannocks the government relegated to Fort Hall, a core group of Lemhi Shoshones is nonetheless doggedly keeping its heritage from being erased by time.

To them, Salmon and the Lemhi Valley forever will be home.

"I'm just here visiting," says Rozina George, a great-great-great-niece of Sacajawea who lives at Fort Hall. The Shoshone-Bannock Tribe, as it's called, has more than 4,800 members, about 500 of whom descend from the Lemhi Shoshone.

George, her mother and her sisters have been instrumental in preserving Lemhi Shoshone history in Salmon, where they once lived, and helped create the Sacajawea Interpretive, Cultural and Educational Center. It opened two years ago in Salmon, in time to educate the throngs of tourists following the route of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery during the three-year-long anniversary commemoration.

The George family also has backed the effort of Rod Ariwite, another Lemhi Shoshone, to petition the government for recognition of the Lemhis and for a new reservation near Salmon.

The Lemhi Shoshone descended in large measure from the Agai-Dika, or Salmon Eaters, who lived in the Lemhi Valley that Lewis and Clark entered in 1805.

Sacajawea had been captured at age 12 by a Hidatsa war party when her people were buffalo hunting in Montana. Five years later, she was in the Mandan Indian village in North Dakota, where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805.

When the explorers hired a French-Canadian fur trader as an interpreter, they were pleased he had a wife, Sacajawea, who could help negotiate with her people when they reached the headwaters of the Missouri River.

The expedition left North Dakota early in the spring of 1805, Sacajawea carrying her newborn, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, on her back.

The journals of Lewis, Clark and others on the expedition record instances in which Sacajawea helped the explorers, but her biggest contribution to the Corps of Discovery was the entree she gave them to the people of the Lemhi Valley.

Her brother had become chief and, while sharing roasted salmon and chokecherry cakes, gave Lewis the disappointing news that there was no easy water route through the mountains to the Pacific.

Cameahwait, as Lewis understood the chief's name, supplied them with horses and a guide, Old Toby, who would see them over the Lolo Pass into what is now northern Idaho, the most perilous stretch of the journey from St. Louis to the Pacific.

Some Lemhi Shoshone always have resented Sacajawea's role in the expedition.

Marie Quanda remembers being scolded by Lemhi women for boasting a connection to Sacajawea when she was a child growing up in Salmon. They thought of Sacajawea as betraying her people, Quanda says.

Most, however, consider her a captive whose intention was to help her own people while aiding the explorers.

Sacajawea knew the explorers could help her people gain the guns they desperately needed, George explains. "Everything she did on that journey was for her people."

Sacajawea stayed with the expedition to the Pacific Ocean and back through the West in 1806. The oral tradition of her people is that she never returned to them, George says.

After their brush with the explorers, the Agai-Dika generally prospered in the Lemhi Valley for the next few decades. Other Shoshone and Bannock bands joined them.

The natives welcomed Mormon missionaries when Brigham Young sent them in 1855, and many adopted the new religion. Grasshoppers chewed up crops and relations soured, and the mission shut down in 1858. The LDS left behind the name Lemhi - a misspelling of the name of The Book of Mormon's King Limhi - and it stuck for the valley and the natives who lived there.

Trail of tears: In the coming decades, the gold rush brought hordes of newcomers to the Lemhi and Salmon River valleys, and the Lemhis fended off federal attempts to move them to Fort Hall with other Shoshones and Bannocks from Idaho and northern Utah.

For a time, the Lemhis had their own 100-acre reservation at Tendoy, but the government took it away.

After Chief Tendoy - who had a reputation for both peacefulness and intransigence - died in 1907, the 474 Lemhis were marched to Fort Hall. Residents and ranchers reported hearing them cry as they passed, their tepee poles strapped to the horses, according to the 2004 book Sacajawea's People by John W.W. Mann.

The trek has been called the Lemhi Trail of Tears. It would be seven decades before the Lemhis were compensated for their land, a $4.5 million settlement they had to share with other Shoshone-Bannocks in 1972.

What's amazing, says Mann, is that the Lemhis have refused to give up their connection to the Salmon River country.

Shortly after being forced to Fort Hall, a half-dozen families moved back to Salmon, where they lived in several areas, always dubbed the Indian camp, for most of the remainder of the 20th century.

Fostered by Chief Tendoy's decades-long friendship with the whites, relations generally were good between the whites and the Lemhis, although the latter had little money, lived in shanties and scraped by doing odd jobs and selling beadwork to merchants.

Lois Navo, the last of the Lemhis to leave Salmon with her husband in 1991, remembers they both worked for potato farmers to keep food on the table.

There were a few ugly incidents and, ultimately, the Lemhis had to go because Salmon wanted to be rid of the impoverished village at the city's entrance.

Navo says she and her husband, Alfred, were visiting Fort Hall when their possessions were put in storage and their home was bulldozed. The last Indian camp in Salmon is now a park.

Navo, now 88 and a widow, says they moved to Fort Hall and did not complain. "Who could we talk to?"

Mann, who teaches history at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire, isn't surprised that Darrell Tendoy has returned to Salmon with his family.

"There seems to be a number of every generation that is drawn there."

In fact, he says, it is that persistence in claiming the Salmon area as their home that makes the story of the Lemhis much more than a sad chapter of history. Yes, it was tragic they were forced to leave and stymied for decades in their effort to be compensated, he says, but it's "just as important to point out it's been a story of persistence and resilience. This is not a victim history.

"Against the odds, they've made an effort to maintain and assert their identity."