Is it possible for two multi-ton moldings of bronze to tell the story of a state, its heritage and its people? If so, visitors to the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., – like those who have walked the state Capitol Grounds in Bismarck for decades – will be given a lesson in the cultural diversity, strength, dignity and perseverance of the people of North Dakota.
Now at both locations, they will encounter two stately images, one of a man and another of a woman with her child. The man, John Burke, dedicated his life to public service as a school teacher, lawyer, newspaper publisher, county judge and state legislator before becoming the 10th governor of North Dakota in 1907. He then served as Treasurer of the United States under President Woodrow Wilson for eight years. He completed his life of public service back in North Dakota as a justice on the Supreme Court, having served in all three branches of government – legislative, judicial and executive.
The woman is Sakakawea, who has become a national symbol of peace, courage and diversity and is the first Native American woman to grace National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol. Sakakawea became a member of the Corps of Discovery on its exploration of the west after Lewis and Clark hired her husband, French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau, during their 1804-05 Fort Mandan winter in what is now present-day North Dakota.
Only 16 years old and with a two-month baby on her back, Sakakawea left Fort Mandan with the Lewis and Clark Expedition on April 7, 1805. She became a valued member of the Corps of Discovery, providing translation and contacts with the Shoshone living west of the Mandan and Hidatsa villages. Early on she rescued packets of paper, instruments, books and medicine which had washed out of a boat that nearly capsized during a violent storm. And she helped establish friendly relations with the Shoshone, from whom the group needed horses to travel from the headwaters of the Missouri to the tributaries of the Snake and Columbia rivers.
Perhaps her most significant contribution to the expedition was acknowledged by Clark in an October 13, 1805, journal entry where he wrote: “… we find (she) reconciles all the Indians as to our friendly intentions, a woman with a party of men is a token of peace.”
The same statue that now stands in National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol has been a landmark on the North Dakota Capitol Grounds in Bismarck since 1910. Sculpted by Leonard Crunelle, the statue was funded with the help of schoolchildren across the state, in a campaign spearheaded by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs of North Dakota.
The organization stepped forward again to help the State Historical Society of North Dakota raise funds for the statue replica to be North Dakota’s second statue in the U.S. Capitol. Their successful efforts, along with money raised from other private contributions, provided the means for North Dakota native and now Arizona sculptor Tom Bollinger to create the replica for the statue’s dedication in Washington, D.C., October 16.
The U.S. Capitol allows for two statues from each state to be part of its National Statuary Hall. North Dakota formed a National Statuary Hall Commission in 1959 to select the person to be honored with the state’s first statue. A list of 84 names was compiled, consisting of the state’s notable Native American leaders, early pioneers, military figures, clergymen, political figures, pioneer women and educators, writers and farmers and ranchers. From this list, Commission members selected John Burke to be the first statue.
The name of Sakakawea was on the original list, and Congressman Earl Pomeroy championed the idea that a replica of her statue on the State Capitol Grounds in Bismarck be North Dakota’s other contribution to National Statuary Hall. The North Dakota Legislature authorized this through a concurrent resolution in 1999.
Because Sakakawea’s son, Jean Baptiste, is on her back, this statue would give North Dakota three people in Statuary Hall, instead of the two allowed. A special exemption from the Architect of the U.S. Capitol paved the way for approval for the replica’s placement. The baby, nicknamed “Pomp” by William Clark, is not mentioned on the statue’s plaque.
The vast majority of the 500 people attending the October 16 ceremony at the U.S. Capitol had ties to North Dakota. It was a time to celebrate North Dakota’s heritage, its rich history and the diversity of the people who made the nation’s 39th state what it is today.
A Beacon of Peace
Speakers at the dedication ceremony placing the Sakakawea Statue in National Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol praised the Native American woman for her contributions to the westward expansion of the United States. The ceremony date of October 16 coincided with the week Lewis and Clark entered what is present-day North Dakota 199 years earlier. Here are some of their comments:
Sakakawea served as a navigator, interpreter, resourceful problem solver and a beacon of peace to the Native Americans encountered on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. She continues to serve as a beacon of peace, cooperation and community.” Congressman Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota
The contributions of Sakakawea to the Lewis and Clark Expedition are tremendous. Without her the expedition may not have been successful. Now all of America can come and visit Sakakawea here at Statuary Hall and know of her contributions for time immemorial.” Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation Chairman Tex Hall
When people work together good things happen, and today is indeed a very good day. Sakakawea represents a proud past with her strength and resourcefulness. She also looks to the future with her son on her back, creating new life. And as we look to the future, she will be here representing us to one and all to a great nation and to the world.” North Dakota Governor John Hoeven
As a woman and mother, Sakakawea was the perfect messenger to convey to all that the expedition’s mission was exploration, not conquest. Today she assumes her rightful place in the United States Capitol as a trail blazer in every sense of the word.” House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, California
The most recognizable person in history from what is now North Dakota is not a scholar, diplomat, soldier or politician. It is a 16-year-old Indian girl who lived two centuries ago. With courage and skill and a new baby, she guided the Lewis and Clark Expedition west to explore the new territory. This was one of the greatest epic adventures in all of our country’s history and this young woman’s role was truly heroic.” Senator Byron Dorgan, North Dakota
Sakakawea saved Lewis and Clark from starvation. She singlehandedly saved much of the written record of the trip. She kept the expedition alive and she kept a young nation’s expansion alive. Lewis and Clark saw in Sakakawea strength, courage and determination. These are the same qualities that define our state and bind us as North Dakotans even now. It is a fitting tribute that Sakakawea will represent our state in Statuary Hall.” Senator Kent Conrad, North Dakota
Sakakawea’s skill, knowledge and astounding courage helped the Lewis and Clark team of explorers reach the distant shores of a vast continent that forever transformed this nation. Could Lewis and Clark have reached the Pacific without Sakakawea? We’ll never know for sure, but we do know she was an integral part of perhaps the greatest American journey of all time. She helped make real Thomas Jefferson’s dream of one nation founded on liberty, stretching from sea to shining sea. She helped chart the map literally of America’s destiny. She showed us the frontier and the future.” Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle, South Dakota
In the long history of this nation, millions of people have called America home and played a role in its advancement as the most powerful and prosperous nation on Earth. Very few of these millions, less than 100, are honored with a statue here in our nation’s Capitol that is the beacon of democracy and of freedom and of equality. Today Congress, the state of North Dakota and indeed all America honor Sakakawea for her role as one of the great Native Americans and we thank her, not only for what she did for this country when it was very young but for what she still does today to remind each and every one of us of our common history and devine-inspired destiny.” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee
Two hundred years ago our nation nearly doubled in size and grew in strength. But we must remember that most of our strength was derived from courageous leaders who faced great challenges so America could one day be the greatest democracy in the world. Sakakawea did just that. Now it is only fitting that this statue of Sakakawea – a proud member of the Hidatsa nation, will now stand among other great marble and bronze statues of noble Americans who dedicated their lives to serving their country.” Speaker of the House of Representatives J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois