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Date posted:  January 20, 2021

Painted over a century after the Lewis and Clark expedition concluded, Olaf Seltzer’s Lewis and Clark with Sacajawea at the Great Falls of the Missouri 1804 visualizes the moment that the Corps of Discovery encountered the Great Falls of the Missouri River, in present-day Montana.  Seltzer highlights how People of Color have played a critical role in the formation of the United States, by depicting Sacagawea[1], her infant son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, William Clark, Merriweather Lewis, and Clark’s slave, York.  On the far side of the powerful river, a herd of bison and rolling green hills—noticeably absent of any Indigenous peoples—emphasize the American myth of a plentiful land that is empty for the taking.  

The artist highlights the two marginalized members of the Corps of Discovery: Sacagawea, an Agaidika Shoshone woman, and York, an enslaved man of African descent.  With her son strapped to her back, Sacagawea stands as the group’s leader, pointing ahead and looking back for the men to follow.  While the three men stand passively behind her, Sacagawea takes action as both an Indigenous woman and a mother leading the way forward.  By comparison, Seltzer represents York as seemingly equal to the other men, were it not for his status as a slave.  All three men carry long muskets, and Seltzer pictures York in fine, military-style clothing, perhaps to further emphasize his significant role among the other Corps members.  

Our understanding of the Corps of Discovery has changed considerably since Seltzer created this image.  The expedition was largely forgotten until its centennial anniversary in the early 20th century.  Recently, historians have reassessed the narratives of Sacagawea, York, and the Corps’ overall impact.  Sacagawea was Shoshone by birth, later taken captive by the Hidatsa, and sold into marriage with the French-Canadian trapper Toussaint Charbonneau.  York was enslaved by the Clark family, and upon returning from the expedition, Clark returned York to chattel slavery.  As for the Corps overall, while Lewis and Clark both took on leadership roles in the new territory, they did not substantially shape events going forward.  Their quest represents a formative moment in American history, while also reinforcing the colonial Doctrine of Discovery, theft of Indigenous lands, and dehumanization of People of Color.

Seltzer took on this complex history as part of a series that commemorated Montana history.  As a Danish immigrant, the artist chose to laud his adopted country by highlighting the diversity of the American West.  This choice was ahead of Seltzer’s own time, as scholars have only recently begun to reconsider American narratives from multiple perspectives.

In recognition of the diversity that the artist celebrated, and that continues to shape the United States, Seltzer’s painting was selected for use at the 59th Presidential Inaugural Ceremony.  On January 20, 2021, Lewis and Clark with Sacajawea at the Great Falls of the Missouri 1804 was featured in the platform program for the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

 

[1] Although Seltzer’s image uses the spelling “Sacajawea,” Gilcrease Museum uses “Sacagawea,” as it is a more accurate transliteration of the Hidatsa pronunciation of her name, Cagáàgawia.  Other variations of her name occur throughout historical literature, including Sakakawea and Tsakakawea, among others.