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Sacajawea at museum on Sunday in living history presentation

by Joyce Hollister

Some 18 years ago, Bobbie Williams was asked to give a 30-minute presentation on women in history to a group in her hometown of Billings, Mont.

She had happened to be reading a book about Sacajawea, so she decided to portray the Native American translator for the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“I started doing a whole lot more research,” Williams said, “and I decided to do her story as though she were telling it.”

This was before portrayals of historic personages, known as Chautauqua performances, had become popular.

“I had never seen anything like this before, and I thought it would be a fun way to do my presentation,” she said.

Little did she know that her Sacajawea portrayal would become famous in the Billings area, and she would be asked again and again to perform in schools and for community organizations.

“I had so many requests, I thought I’d copyright and sell it,” she said.

In Montana, Lewis and Clark is a big part of the history of the area. Williams volunteers to help with the U.S. Forest Service in the summer, and one year she worked at the Lehmi Pass where the expedition had crossed the Continental Divide.

She was helping track the route Lewis and Clark took using the global positioning system (GPS).

“To read about it was one thing,” Williams said. “To be actually in their footsteps was something else.”

Sacajawea was married to a French trader, and he was hired to translate for Lewis and Clark. She was of the Aguidika band of Shoshone, based in the Rocky Mountains of Idaho. She went along to help translate, taking her young baby with her.

“Historically, there’s very little known,” Williams said of Sacajawea’s life after the expedition. “There are a couple of written references. There is, however, a strong oral history among the Indians about how she lived her life.”

After her portrayal of Sacajawea as an old woman, Williams will explain what oral history is and how it can be of importance to museums and historians. She also answers questions.

What are the usual questions?

“They want to know what happened to her baby,” Williams said, “and what happened to members of the expedition and the important of the expedition.”

In the past, audiences have also asked why Lewis didn’t publish his notes right away. This wasn’t down until 13 years later, and in the meantime, he committed suicide, and someone else had to do it.

Williams will show her reproduction of one of Clark’s expedition maps that she obtained from the Forest Service while working on the Lehmi project.

Some of Williams’ most prized possessions are the letters schoolchildren have written to her about Sacajawea and her portrayal.

“You made history come alive for me,” one schoolchild wrote.

“That’s what I want to hear,” said Williams, who is a teacher of gifted and talented students at Scarselli Elementary School. SES is a partner with the Carson Valley Museum and Cultural Center.

Williams will do her Sacajawea presentation at the museum tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. It is the last special event of the Carson Valley Historical Society’s celebration of National Women in History Month and will be held in the public meeting room downstairs.

Refreshments will be served and admission is free.