alias bird woman
This post is a little different,
but I hope you like it anyway.
We’ll never know her real name,
the name that called the baby girl back to her mother
from where she sat singing little songs in the tall grass,
the one that was the first gift from her family.
The name we know her by was a brand from her kidnappers,
something I didn’t know until I read my son a book about the woman
I once dressed as for Halloween, faux-suede fringe on my skirt, a band around my forehead.
I felt beautiful and strange as a bird when I was her.
I was not older than she was when they took her.
I don’t know what happened when they took her
(they don’t tell those stories in books for sons and daughters)
but I know exactly what happened when they took her.
First, they picked a new name, something in their tongue.
Then the record is silent on her captivity
until she became a wife to a man who was my father’s age
when I slipped on her moccasins
and braided a feather into my hair.
Her husband told Lewis and Clark to call her Bird Woman.
They spelled her name seven different ways in the log
but never the right way. Not even close.
How could they have gotten it right?
That wasn’t her name they were writing.
Whoever she was, she had her old man’s baby in North Dakota.
She walked 5,000 miles with 32 men
eating roots with her son on a board on her back.
(Was she done growing yet herself?)
She was the youngest.
She was the only girl.
She rescued the map from the galloping river
for the people who would need it.
At some point, those people began to ask her
what she thought about the route.
For walking 5,000 miles,
her husband got 533 dollars and 320 acres.
She got to see the Pacific Ocean.
I imagine her standing with her bare feet in the pebbly sand.
Was she happy?
I imagine her singing little songs to her son in the salty wind,
introducing herself to him with a name we’ll never know,
pleased as a mother would be to give him the gift of the ocean,
to share the gift of the ocean with him.
One line in a journal from 1812 says she died at 24 years old:
”The wife of Charbonneau, a Snake Squaw, died of putrid fever.
She was the best woman in the fort. Aged abt 25.”
The journal didn’t name her.
That same old man took other girls as wives, too.
(Of course he did.)
The Shoshone disagree with the journal.
They say that at the end of her journey, she came home
and lived in Wind River with her son
until the end of her hundred-year life.
Bird Woman was not her name;
if she could have taken flight
I believe she would have.
If she’d been Bird Woman she’d have spread her wings
when they first came to take her,
young as she’d been she still could have dashed for the sky.
If she’d been Bird Woman.
She’d never have been assigned to Lewis and Clark
and we’d never have known she lived
and my son would not be reading about her,
calling her his hero
by the wrong name.