Last month, we began our bracket for the Rough Rider Award by presenting 32 notable men and women from North Dakota and asking you to vote for the people you felt best deserved our state's highest honor.

Ultimately, we only needed one name: Sakakawea.

The Shoshone woman who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their historic trek through what is now the United States blew through our bracket, easily winning each round en route to the final victory over former professional football player Phil Hansen.

It's an interesting victory as the historical woman who we, really, don't know that much about earned your approval in a field of, perhaps, more glamorous actors, musicians, astronauts, sports heroes, artists and writers.

"I really think that North Dakotans really have a right to feel the way we do about Sakakawea, because this is the place she walked into history from," says Amy Mossett, a Sakakawea scholar from Twin Buttes, N.D., on the Fort Berthold Reservation.

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"It was from a Hidatsa village that she joined the Lewis and Clark expedition. ... Had she been living anywhere else at that time in 1804, we would have never had heard of her," she says.

If you grew up in North Dakota, it was almost impossible not to hear of Sakakawea. The woman's story was a part of school history classes, our state's largest lake borrowed her name, and a statue of the woman who carried her child on her back stands outside our state Capitol in Bismarck.

Not bad for a woman who was born in Idaho before being "kidnapped" into a Hidatsa tribe and eventually marrying a French trapper.

"But she grew into a woman here," Mossett says of Sakakawea's connection to the state. "We have a responsibility to honor her legacy, to bestow her place among us."

Of course, this voting process displays the affinity people in our area have for Sakakawea. But there is this question: Does Sakakawea deserve the Rough Rider Award?

At least one person doesn't think she does.

Clay Jenkinson, director of the Dakota Institute of the Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation, says "I think the Rough Rider Award should go to living people who are contributing to our understanding of North Dakota."

Having said that, Jenkinson stresses that he admires Sakakawea and says, "She's clearly somebody who matters."

But he raises a point about what the Rough Rider Award is and whom it should it honor.

The award was started by Governor William Guy as a way to honor North Dakotans who improve the culture or development of the state. Yet as Jenkinson points out, it seems to have drifted toward being a "chamber of commerce" distinction often honoring politicians and business leaders.

"We need to return the Rough Rider Award to its true importance," Jenkinson says, explaining that it was to serve as a Hall of Fame to the people who contributed to the betterment of the state.

Back to Sakakawea, "I think she's extremely important in history, but is she an important Rough Rider?" Jenkinson asks.

The people who voted for her in our poll would say yes.

And Mossett says that's because the people of North Dakota believe in honoring their heritage - whether that's Native American, Scandinavian, German-Russian or any other ethnicity.

"Most of us are multi-cultural," Mossett says. "When I think of Sakakawea, I consider her to be one of the most culturally enlightened women of her time."

But is she worthy of the Rough Rider Award?

"To choose a woman who's essentially a mythological being ... that seems to be less intelligent than picking a Native American like (president of United Tribes Technical College) David Gipp," Jenkinson says. "Or how about Louise Erdrich?"

Good point. Erdrich, the award-winning author and former Wahpeton resident, is also a Native American, and she is one of the state's most noted writers. She made it to the final four of the bracket.

Ultimately, the decision to honor Erdrich or Sakakawea with the Rough Rider Award won't be up to our readers, Mossett or Jenkinson. It's decided by a committee consisting of the state's governor, the secretary of state and director of the state Historical Society.

We tried to ask Gov. Jack Dalrymple if he approved of our readers' suggestion, but he was too busy to return a call. That happens when you're running a state.

We'll just have to wait and see how he and the rest of the committee feels about Sakakawea.

Readers can reach Forum Features Editor Robert Morast at (701) 241-5518