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Searching for Tamsen Donner

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Searching for Tamsen Donner 151

of a tribe breakfasted at our tent this morning. All are so friendly that I cannot
help feeling sympathy and friendship for them.—it seemed almost impera-
tive that in some way they be a part of our retracing. And of course,

this whole trip had happened because of searching for a heroine. Had

Sacajawea not been female and a minority, my daughters and I might

have learned in school about the Sacajawea Expedition.

I felt uneasy when we drove onto the reservation, a little scared. Were

whites welcome here? Why should we be? We pulled over, a carful of

palefaces, and asked an Indian for directions. He drew us a map.

There were two cemeteries. My guidebook said without elaboration

that Sacajawea was buried in the Indian cemetery, Chief Washaki in

the government cemetery. The latter was slightly more formal than the

former, neither like any cemetery I’d ever seen. The Indian cemetery

was particularly wonderful.

Sacajawea guided the Lewis and Clark Expedition from the Missouri

River to the Pacifi c Coast and back during 1805–06. What happened

after that is unclear and unresolved. Some say she died in 1812 at age

24. Others say she died in 1884, nearly a hundred years old, and was

buried with her two sons on either side of her, one of those sons, Char-

bonneau, born and raised while on the two-and-a-half-year expedition.

Her gravestone here, a tall, rectangular gray stone, could be seen from

a long way off, rising out of a fi eld of white crosses, a guide to the

cemetery and a reference point within it.

The cemetery, the antithesis of the usual manicured Eastern cem-

etery, was dusty, dry ground, long wind-tossed desert grasses bending

from their own weight, clumps of sage telling you: This is the West,

This is harsh land. From a distance, the cemetery appeared to be a

mass of white crosses spreading out longitudinally, bounded only by

the butte behind and blue sky above, one tall gray stone a sentinel.

Close up, it was shocks of color. In between the white crosses, mod-

est commercial headstones and ordinary rocks nestled in overgrown

grass and sage; everywhere there were fl owers—scattered wildfl owers,

fl oral arrangements in varying states of dying and drying with bright

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152 Searching for Tamsen Donner

satin ribbons, and masses of artifi cial fl owers. Plastic fl owers that in

Eastern cemeteries often looked tacky in their formal atmosphere, out

here against parched earth and brilliant blue sky were riots of vivid

color—joyous, celebratory, defi ant—dramatic as life and death. So

many graves were ingeniously bordered, contained, that it was obviously

an Indian custom, but none of my books told the signifi cance. Metal

rails that appeared to be delicately curved bedstands ran lengthwise

along the sides of one grave, plastic fl owers twining in between the

rusted bars, the overall effect that of a pretty trellis. Stones, placed in a

rectangle, marked out another grave. Little white pickets, a miniature

fence, framed another.

A mass of plastic fl owers covered a double mound. Two stone hearts

overlapped, forever twining.

Mother Daughter

Sannette Sonja

1948–1976 1975–76

The commercial marker was raised beyond sentimentality by the

tender ages. It used to be diphtheria; what happened last year to this

28-year-old mother and her 1-year-old daughter? There were many pre-

mature deaths in this cemetery, and we talked about the high incidence

of alcoholism and suicide among despairing Native Americans, their

land stolen, culture scorned and debased, no jobs, little hope.

Chief Washaki, the great Shoshone chief, was buried in the govern-

ment cemetery, a small graveyard enclosed by a stone wall. Many graves

there were bordered with wooden rectangles, four pieces of wood mak-

ing a frame for the grave. More expensive graves with headstones were

bordered with commercial stone frames.

Outside the cemetery, which was probably full, there was a Vietnam

vet: white cross, red fl owers, American fl ag, his grave bordered on

three sides with irregularly shaped stones—the kind you picked up off

the ground someplace—the modest headstone at the top completing

the rectangular frame. Deep red fl owers—making me think more of

Page 328

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