At least 23 statues across the country honor Sacagawea. Schoolchildren learn about her travels with explorers Lewis and Clark. She's on the golden dollar coin, and lakes, mountains, rivers and schools have been named for her.
"She is," said Amy Mossett, director of tourism for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, "the most celebrated woman in American history."
Sacagawea's experiences on the Corps of Discovery expedition with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark will be commemorated during a national, three-year event that kicks off Jan. 14 to 19 at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville. The event marks the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's cross-country journey, proposed by Jefferson in a letter to Congress in 1803.
While Sacagawea's name and her role as guide and interpreter in Lewis and Clark's expedition to explore the American West are familiar to many, much of her life remains a mystery.
"There is a mysticism that surrounds her," Mossett said. "It's kind of a story that never ends."
For one thing, there's still debate about the spelling and meaning of her name. Also, when she died and where she is buried are disputed.
Sacagawea was born about 1788 in Idaho as a member of the Shoshone nation. About age 10, she was captured by the Hidatsa tribe and brought to North Dakota.
Mossett, who is Hidatsa, disputes common classroom teaching that the Hidatsas enslaved Sacagawea. "War captives were absorbed into a tribe," she said. "They would become brothers and sisters and treated with equality."
Growing up in both the Shoshone and Hidatsa tribes adds to the confusion surrounding Sacagawea's name. According to the Shoshone, her name means "boat launcher" or "boat pusher." The Hidatsa say her name means "bird woman."
"It depends on who you talk to and which tribe they're from," said Debra Tendore, a member of the Shoshone tribe who lives in Fort Hall, Idaho. "She was born a Shoshone, and I believe she had a Shoshone name."
Not only is the meaning of Sacagawea's name debated, so is the spelling. It's commonly written as Sakakawea, Sacajawea and Sacagawea.
"There is no J in her name," Mossett said. "Nicholas Biddle, the man who edited the journals in 1814, put the J in her name. Her name is spelled 13 ways in the journals. Never once did they use a J."
Sacagawea even has two grave markers, in Mobridge, S.D., and on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Fort Washakie, Wyo.
The writings of Clark and trader John C. Luttig indicate that Sacagawea died Dec. 23, 1812, at Fort Manuel, S.D. Luttig wrote in his journal: "This evening the wife of Charbonneau, a Snake Squaw, died of a putrid fever. She was good and the best woman in the fort, aged about 25 years."
Some argue that Luttig was referring to interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau's other wife, known as Otter Woman. But Mossett maintains that "most serious scholars will tell you she [Sacagawea] died in her mid-twenties at Fort Manuel following complications from childbirth."
According to Shoshone oral history, however, Sacagawea died in 1884 at age 96 in Wind River, Wyo. Some tribal members said she left Charbonneau after he married another woman, then married a Comanche and later rejoined the Shoshone tribe in Wyoming after his death.
Tendore and others say they believe that Sacagawea was buried in Wind River with her son, Jean Baptiste.
While there is controversy over Sacagawea's life and the circumstances of her death, no one disputes her bravery. She was about 16 and pregnant when Charbonneau joined the Corps of Discovery, taking her along -- the only woman to accompany the party to the Pacific Ocean and back. Because Sacagawea spoke both Hidatsa and Shoshone, Lewis and Clark said she would be useful in communicating and negotiating with the tribes they met.
"Sacagawea's most important role was as an interpreter," Mossett said. "She helped them communicate with the Shoshone so that they could get horses to cross the Rocky Mountains. Without those horses, they would have had a horrendous time."
A schedule of the six-day program in Charlottesville honoring Jefferson and the Lewis and Clark expedition can be found on the Internet at www.monticello.org/jefferson/lewisandclark/schedule.html.