A: A lot of times, Ockham’s Razor as a decision-making tool is used, and that is “Don’t disregard the most obvious solution possible.” If it looks like a duck, and it quacks like a duck, it’s a duck. So often people who aren’t in power are subjected to profiling that amounts to Ockham’s Razor decision-making, but not so often has it been applied to America’s Founding Fathers or to (people like) Duke Paul. It’s on record what a great scientist Duke Paul is, but if in fact he takes more than one Native American teenager, a boy, through the capitals of Europe, and does it again and again, then maybe he has a thing for young boys.

William Clark is another example of that. In his journals, there’s no mention of him having intimate relations with Native American maidens as the Lewis and Clark expedition went across, but there is evidence of him again and again encouraging his men to take the Venetian glass beads that they were using to trade with and trade them for sexual favors.

A fact that sort of pins this up is that when they’re studying now the progress of the Lewis and Clark expedition across the United States, one of the ways they can ascertain that the Lewis and Clark group was there, there are larger deposits of mercury in the soil where they built latrines, and that’s because mercury was considered one of the cures for syphilis. So there’s this bright glowing trail of mercury when you’re following the Lewis and Clark expedition across the country. And that’s a story that didn’t make it into the children’s schoolbooks.

Q: For obvious reasons.

A: For Sacagawea, there’s this persistent myth that she lived into her 80s, with the wind streaming through her hair at Wind River Reservation. Even the native Shoshone person who came to one of my readings was convinced that was the way it happened. But in 1812, she disappears from the Clark compound, and dies of putrid fever months later (at age 25) at a far-flung fort in the wilderness.

Also, when we wonder about that extraordinary ability of Sacagawea to find her way back across the continental United States, and when we romanticize that as some extra power, we are really dismissing her. What happened was, when she was something like 12, she was abducted from her tribe and dragged east by two warring tribes for thousands of miles. So when she took Lewis and Clark back the other way, she had a horrible, personal Trail of Tears.

Q: It sounds like you gained a lot of respect for her and what she went through.

A: Yes, because she made decisions and she made negotiations. They weren’t black and white, and they weren’t all beautiful. She would make compromising decisions in the interest of her son. She wanted her son to be educated like a great white gentleman, and I think made all of the sacrifices in his interest. She felt this crushing need for her son to impress Clark on his terms.

Q: How did you originally become interested in the story of Jean-Baptiste?

A: From my earliest times, I always wondered, what happened to this little boy? What happened to the expedition papoose? He was a photo op. When we look at the Sacagawea coin or any of the other images of Sacagawea that take us back to elementary school, we’re treated to a defining moment that shows her shining serenely at the Pacific’s edge, wearing this iconic fashion accessory on her back, sort of the way Paris Hilton is photographed with Tinker Bell tucked under her arm.

The photo op is very comforting until you wonder, was there a cost to Princess Sacagawea for betraying her knowledge of the woods to the benefit of these great explorers, Lewis and Clark, and isn’t there a second person on this coin? And so Baptiste’s story just cried out to be told.

Q: And he goes on to become quite a mountain man, doesn’t he, hanging out with some of the big explorers and trappers of the day?

A: Absolutely. He repeats Sacagawea’s stunt of taking powerful white men across the continent when he took the Mormon Battalion across the desert. It sounds so biblical, especially with a name like Jean-Baptiste. He was the chief guide taking the Mormon Battalion across to populate California before Mexico could claim it, resulting in California statehood. And so he stood on the edge of the Pacific in middle age, no doubt thinking “Well mom, here I am. I’ve done what you’ve done. Have I betrayed Eden, too?”

Copyright © 2008 Blethen Maine Newspapers

From an interview on Museum of Human Beings

The York Independent: Arts & Leisure – The Arts Scene

By Jennifer L. Saunders

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