Removing our Lewis & Clark statues felt like an afterthought. It should be an awakening.
For years before it was recently removed, the local debate about the Lewis & Clark statue on West Main Street in Charlottesville centered around whether or not Sacajawea's crouched posture was demeaning and underplayed her importance to the expedition, a debate that resulted in the placement of a contextual plaque in 2009 that was dedicated by Sacajawea's descendants. I was actually there and gave Sacajawea's great-granddaughter a pack of C&O Restaurant matches so she could perform a "smudging" ceremony on the plaque with burning sage.
"This is so people will respect it," she said, "and so it will always have positive energy."
Back then, the idea of removing the statue never even crossed anyone's mind, and while City Council took up the Lewis & Clark statue debate and flew in Sacajawea's descendants from Idaho to try to correct some history, Charlottesville slept soundly as the tulips once again bloomed beneath the statues of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson just blocks away. However, along with the eventual awakening about our confederate statues, the displeasure with the way Sacajawea was represented and the debate about what the sculpture's creator intended resurfaced, despite the blessed plaque. Still, while we were caught up wrestling with what our confederate statues represented, the local media coverage on the Lewis & Clark statue debate continued to focus on concerns about Sacajawea's artistic representation, rather than, say, larger issues about the Lewis & Clark statues (and UVA's George Rogers Clark statue, which was also removed) as homages to the white European empire-building that led to the extermination of Native American peoples. Or the history of Indian tribes in our own area. Or the fact that Thomas Jefferson's troubling views on Native Americans were embedded in the Declaration of Independence when he referred to the "merciless Indian savages." Almost 150 years later, at the dedication of UVA's statue homage to Clark, those views hadn't changed much when UVA president Edwin Alderman described Lewis & Clark doing battle with "the savage and the beast" and using "science in dominion over nature." Still, some felt that the removal of the Lewis & Clark statues was done hastily and that they weren’t as clearly symbolic of racist beliefs as our confederate statues were. Actually, because they came down so suddenly we didn’t really get a chance to seriously debate that, not like we did with our confederate statues, and to contemplate the horrors they represent for Native American people. Now that they've come down, however, perhaps it's time for another awakening.
“If art can be evil, these were evil,” Anthony Guy Lopez, a U-Va. graduate and Crow Creek Sioux tribal member who began petitioning the city to take down the Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea statue in 2009, told the Washington Post after the two statues came down. “What this says to American Indians is that violence is part of our lives, and that we have to not only accept but glorify it.”
Now, I'm no historian, but even an amateur accounting of local Native American history is revealing. I was shocked to learn that the six Indian tribes in Virginia - Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan, and the Nansemond tribes - didn't get federally recognized until 2018. That's because the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924 took away their identities, classifying them as either white or non-white, and allowed the state government to change birth, marriage, and death records. Until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law in 1967 -- along with the equally heinous Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 -- in its ruling on the Virginia ban on interracial marriage in Loving v. Virginia, someone claiming to be Native American in Virginia could be sentenced to a year in jail. Even in 2018, there were lawmakers in Virginia who objected to recognizing the tribes because, they said, they worried it would lead to Indian gambling operations, even though the tribes had agreed to give up their right to operate casinos to get the bill passed. It's remarkable that any tribal history was preserved at all, actually, as the history of Native Americans in Albemarle County is sketchy at best. However, anthropologists believe the main village of the Monacans was in the vicinity of Charlottesville, and Jefferson noted as a boy seeing Native Americans gathered around a huge burial ground near the South Fork of the Rivanna River, writing that they "staid about it some time, with expressions which were construed to be those of sorrow” (he would later excavate a nearby burial mound). Of course, as President, Jefferson would also become one of the early architects of "Indian removal" policies as the country expanded westward.
Remarkably, Philip Hamilton, the Republican running for the 57th District seat in the House of Delegates, appears not to have recognized the cruel irony of calling the removal of the Lewis & Clark statue an example of "cancel culture" as he announced plans to sue the City of Charlottesville to have it placed back on its pedestal when Native American identity in Virginia was so deliberately erased and replaced with homages to those who helped accomplish that.