The legend of Sacajewea, a Lemhi Shoshone girl who accompanied Lewis and Clark on the Corps of Discovery, has been told in monuments, encyclopedias and children’s books.
But there is more — much more — to her, writes Debra Magpie Earling, the Bitterroot Salish writer who has just published “The Lost Journals of Sacajewea,” a novel in which this old story emerges in an entirely new way.
“Debra’s new book is a masterpiece of truth and language. On the very frontier of English,” said poet Alice Derry, who will join Earling for an event this week. The two will read from their respective books — Derry from her poetry collection “Asking” — at 7 p.m. tonight at the Pope Marine Building, 530 Water St., Port Townsend. The public is invited to the free event.
On Thursday, Earling will be the Studium Generale speaker at Peninsula College, giving a solo reading at 12:35 p.m. in the Little Theater on campus at 1502 E. Lauridsen Blvd., Port Angeles. The program also will be available on Zoom at https://pencol-edu.zoom.us/j/83024542567; meeting ID 830 2454 2567.
Kate Reavey, the professor who organizes the college’s weekly Studium Generale lecture series, was the one who suggested having an additional reading with both Derry and Earling. Derry is professor emerita at Peninsula College, and has facilitated poetry workshops with tribes around the region.
In “The Lost Journals,” Earling, a University of Montana emeritus professor and Guggenheim fellowship scholar, takes readers inside the life of one of America’s most mythologized figures.
Sacajewea emerges as the teller of her own story. The girl is strong, weaving baskets, gathering berries, butchering antelope, deer and buffalo.
Then Sacajewea is kidnapped. She becomes the property of Charbonneau, a French Canadian trapper. She must enter a different world and learn how to survive in it. With her infant son, Sacajewea travels across terrain that is brutal in every way.
“The West has not had a reckoning of its mythology,” Earling said in an email interview.
“We tend to accept the wholesome idea of Western expansion and not its dire consequences in particular to Indigenous women.
“I hope that this book will open up new conversations about the mythology of the West, and how we have ignored the very real consequences of encroachment and displacement. Sacajewea is one of many stolen sisters. Her story reflects Missing Murdered Indigenous Women’s stories,” she added.
This book, said Derry, is “the other truth that has been covered up,” for hundreds of years. Earling stands among the country’s best writers, she added, and “is now giving us the other side of the story.”
“The Lost Journals” is an experimental novel, Derry said – more so than Earling’s American Book Award-winning “Perma Red,” published in 2002.
Derry’s “Asking,” meanwhile, is her sixth full collection of poetry. It explores grief in the wake of her husband’s death from a sudden heart attack.
“Asking” and “Lost Journals,” Derry said, are both about loss – and about finding the self and the courage to keep living.
Poet Tess Gallagher, Derry’s longtime friend and the widow of Raymond Carver, suggested the “Asking” title.
“After somebody dies, especially someone so beloved, we have so many unanswered questions,” said Derry. Her poems are meditations on those questions.
Derry said she’ll share some new work in addition to selections from “Asking” during Wednesday’s event. When Reavey invited her to read with Earling, she could only say: “Wow, that would be an honor.”
Earling begins her book with a dedication: “for the stolen sisters of all Native Nations.” In it, she seeks to return Sacajewea’s voice to her.
When this voice came to the writer, it was “peculiar, and a haunted one,” Earling said.
It was hesitant at first, “and like a new language.
“There are sentences in the book that suddenly stop, as if she is groping for the right word or phrase, or as if she is overwhelmed by the things that she is learning.”
Diane Urbani de la Paz is a freelance writer and photographer living in Port Townsend.