Themes and Characters
Sacagawea is one of O'Dell's strong female characters who consistently behaves with nobility and integrity. Best known in history for her importance as a guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition, Sacagawea's story, as told by O'Dell, shows the strength she possessed in surviving the hardships of exploring an unknown territory and in overcoming personal disappointments to raise her son in the Shoshone manner. As Sacagawea comes to love Captain Clark, she refuses to be blinded to her greatest responsibility—her son Meeko. It is that responsibility that eventually spurs her to return to her native people and raise her son in the Shoshone traditions.
The other characters in the novel all serve in some degree as a contrast to Sacagawea. Charbonneau is pictured as a greedy and selfish fool. His abuse of Sacagawea is evidence of his cruel and uncaring nature; his betrayal of the expedition an example of his lack of integrity. Sacagawea stands tall in comparison, even though as his wife she is his inferior in Native American society. Her ability to circumvent his anger and protect her son from his influence show her common sense and her ability to judge character astutely. Even Captain Clark, whom Sacagawea loves and who is basically admirable, does not possess the sensitivity one might expect. While he is quick to protect her when he can from Charbonneau's temper, he does not see the pain he himself causes her when he declares she could come to St. Louis and become a part of his "civilized world" by going to school to become a proper lady. Neither does he understand Sacagawea's distress when he declares her a beautiful Indian child. Sacagawea is disturbed that after all their time together, through confrontations with hostile Native Americans and the perilous trail, he sees her only as a child, and not as the woman and mother she is.
The other female characters also contrast with Sacagawea. Most of these women exist only in relation to the masculine world in which they reside. Black Moccasin's wives conspire to marry Sacagawea to Red Hawk, and so prepare her to catch his eye. They remind Sacagawea many times of the honor she would receive to be chosen by the elusive Red Hawk. Otter Woman, Charbonneau's first wife, sees Sacagawea as a threat, but expresses a willingness to share the Frenchman so as not to lose her security. Only Running Deer seems to possess an independent spirit when she bravely escapes the Minnetarees. But later it is Running Deer who discourages Sacagawea from continuing on to the sea...
(The entire section is 656 words.)