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  • Mikah Meyer

How Your Teachers Lied to You

Unit #27 / 412 - Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

Do you know who Sakakawea is?

I bet you do. Or you've at least put her coin in a vending machine.

Popularly recognized as Sacajawea (sa-ka-juh-wee-uh), she is perhaps the most famous of Native American women (OK, so you got a Disney movie, Pocahontas).

Though she wasn't known for painting with the colors of the wind, she is credited with making something quite difficult--would you like to cross the Rocky Mountains with no horses or knowledge of the area?--possible.

But it isn't just mountains which are important to this story.

In fact, the prairie plays a pivotal role in the Lewis & Clark expedition.

It was in this North Dakota prairie that these explorers met Toussaint Charbonneau, a Frenchman who had purchased a Shoshoni woman captured by another tribe five years earlier. That tribe was the Knife River Hidatsa, and that Shoshoni woman was Sakakawea--a phonetic spelling better representing the true pronunciation of her name; one which the state of North Dakota adopted as the official spelling of this famed Native American.

That history is preserved by present day Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, just south of Lake Sakakawea and on the banks of the upper Missouri River.

The Hidatsa tribe, who had lived in this area since 1,000 A.D., are now highlighted not only for their contribution to our understanding of prairie-dwelling Natives, but specifically for their earth mound homes. Their history can be absorbed in the park's museum with artifacts and tableaux, then visitors can stand in the exact spots these relics were excavated, these scenes took place, and where Sakakawea once lived.

With two main villages: a summer one at the top of a hill to view the bison herds' movements and a winter one in forested areas more protected from the constant prairie wind, these Natives created both large summer and smaller winter dwellings (to keep the heat in). With the biggest ones capable of housing horses inside, it was these earth mounds and the surrounding farm lands/river which allowed Natives to survive in a climate reaching both -40 F and 100 F.

Knowledge that eventually helped Lewis & Clark make it across the prairie, communicate with the Shoshoni tribes of the Rocky Mountains, reach the Pacific Ocean, and help create present day America.

And information translated to them through the Frenchman Toussaint and Sakakawea--who made the journey with her infant child (Did you have to carry a baby to England, Pocahontas?).

So though its small size and monotone vistas didn't elicit the same "wows" as my visit to Theodore Roosevelt National Park three hours west, Knife River serves as a place to teach us our history--and correct us when we've learned it wrong.

5 Knife River Highlights (You Can Do)!

1. Tour the Earth Mound

Large enough to fit horses inside, the NPS offers free Ranger-led tours on a by-request schedule.

2. The Village Trail

Take this short walk to see two previous village grounds, including the one where Sakakawea is believed to have lived.

3. Walk Along the Upper Missouri River

Having grown up in southeast Nebraska, where the Missouri River is large and rolling, it was peaceful to walk on the mowed Two Rivers Trail and imagine Hidatsa life on this waterway.

4. Tour the Museum

Watching the Visitor Center's video about Knife River and touring their exhibits helped these small earth dug-outs have more meaning, especially when we walked by the sites of excavation next to the Missouri River.

5. Make the Drive Part of the Experience

Knife River is in the dead center of North Dakota, so if you're going to drive all the way there, stop at one of these three attractions en route:

From the East: World's Largest Bison and Albino Bison

From Interstate-94 you'll notice the large bison sculpture near Jamestown. Pull over and you'll be rewarded with viewings of "Dakota Miracle," an albino bison and her--new--albino baby!

From the West: The Enchanted Highway

Just east of Dickinson, ND, on this road stretching from Gladstone to Regent, experience seven of the world's largest metal sculptures.

From the South: North Dakota Capitol

In 9th grade I had to retake the entire "States and Capitals" quiz only because I forgot the "C" in the spelling of Bismarck. I rectified this with a visit to North Dakota's capitol, which offers both free tours (for the frugal traveler) and free high-speed wi-fi (for the travel blogger).

Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations, please! What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)

Minnesota to Wisconsin to Iowa to Illinois to Indiana to Michigan to Ohio

-Mississippi National River & Recreation Area

-Pipestone National Monument

-Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway

-Effigy Mounds National Monument

-Herbert Hoover National Historic Site

-Pullman National Monument

-Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

-River Raisin National Battlefield Park

-Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial

-James A. Garfield National Historic Site

Here's the journey thus far:

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