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Charlottesville votes to remove another statue, and more controversy follows

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — When the Charlottesville City Council voted this month to remove a prominent statue depicting Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea from the city’s downtown core, it marked the third time in three years the city acted to banish a long-standing statue it determined to be divisive, a vestige of racism or culturally insensitive.

The council’s decision was cheered by the local Native American tribe, the Monacan Indian Nation, and descendants of Sacagawea’s family in Idaho. They say the statue presents a weak and servile image of Sacagawea, who actually was an essential guide and interpreter for Lewis and Clark on their expedition of the American West following the Louisiana Purchase in the early 19th century. The statue on West Main Street — its official name is “Their First View of the Pacific” — shows Lewis and Clark standing in heroic poses looking west. Sacagawea is crouching behind.

Rose Ann Abrahamson, a descendant of Sacagawea’s brother, Chief Cameahwait, and a citizen of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, said she was shocked when she first saw the statue in 2009.

“It is totally dehumanizing. I see Sacagawea in a position almost animalistic, like a pet,” Abrahamson said in a phone interview from her home on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho. “If you truly understand our American history . . . you would understand that this depiction is not the truth. It is one made of ignorance. It is one made with a mind that believes people of color are less than. And that women are less than.”

The Charlottesville council’s action follows similar decisions in cities throughout the nation to take down or replace statues that Native Americans say are degrading or erase their contributions.

Last year, San Francisco removed from a downtown plaza a statue named “Early Days” that showed a barely clad Native American man sitting at the feet of a Catholic missionary and a Spanish cowboy. A report by the San Francisco Arts Commission said the statue embraced stereotypes “which are now universally viewed as disrespectful, misleading and racist.” Kalamazoo, Mich., also took action last year, removing an Art Deco statue from a city park of an armed settler standing over a Native American man wearing a headdress.

Other cities have removed monuments to Christopher Columbus or proposed doing so to protest the explorer’s treatment of native tribes he encountered in the West Indies and the subsequent impact of European colonization on North American tribes. In October, the District became the latest city to replace a celebration of Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

Charlottesville is no stranger to controversy surrounding statues and the debates about what they mean and who should decide what happens to them.

Charlottesville’s Confederate statues still stand — and still symbolize a racist legacy

The city voted in 2017 to remove monuments to Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson from downtown parks. And then there’s another statue, just a mile from the Sacagawea sculpture, that is the target of activists who want it removed. That statue, named “George Rogers Clark, Conqueror of the Northwest,” is dedicated to William Clark’s older brother and stands on the University of Virginia campus. He is astride a horse and towers over three Native American figures, including a cowering woman who holds a baby.

A petition circulating at the university says the statue celebrates war on Native Americans and efforts to eradicate them. U-Va. officials say the petition has been referred to the President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation, which is engaged in a campuswide examination of U-Va.’s role in segregation and related issues. The commission plans to issue a report on steps the university should take to address past actions.

All four of the controversial statues were commissioned in the early 20th century by Paul Goodloe McIntire, a wealthy stockbroker from Charlottesville who donated extensively to the city and U-Va. The university’s business school and departments of art and music are named for him. So is one of the city’s largest public parks.

But whether any of the statues will be removed remains very much unclear.

Not everyone agrees the Sacagawea statue should go, including historic preservationists who argue it should remain in a prominent downtown location and be better contextualized to explain her contributions and those of York, an enslaved man who was also part of the expedition and critical to its success. Others have expressed opposition to removing the statue in letters to the local newspaper, the Daily Progress. Some fear a repeat of what happened the last time the city voted to remove statues.

In the former capital of the Confederacy, the debate over statues is personal and painful

The effort to take down the Lee and Jackson statues has been beset by controversy and bloody fights. The proposal to remove the Lee statue became a rallying cry for neo-Confederates, the Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists who joined forces at the Unite the Right march on Aug. 12, 2017, a day that ended in dozens of injuries and the death of Heather Heyer, a counterprotester.

Following those events, the City Council voted to get rid of the Jackson statue as well, but both decisions are ensnared in legal battles and hamstrung by a Virginia law that forbids the removal of statues built to honor war veterans.

City officials say no similar restrictions apply to the Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea statue, erected in 1919. The council voted to move it from its current location at a busy intersection opposite the federal courthouse.

“We feel that we owe this to the community,” council member Wes Bellamy said. “When we talk about moving toward reconciliation, toward equity and toward doing what’s right, our indigenous members of our community have been negatively impacted more than anyone by white supremacy. This is how we fight back.”

The initial proposal called for the statue to be relocated 20 feet for planned roadwork, but the council vote means it will be moved altogether from downtown. Where it lands has yet to be determined. One proposal that seems agreeable to city leaders and Sacagawea’s descendants is to move the statue a few miles away to the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center, where context and education programs can be dedicated to telling the statue’s complete story and Sacagawea’s role in the expedition.

Alexandria Searls, the center’s executive director, said she hopes to present the statue as a centerpiece for learning about Sacagawea’s contributions.

By all accounts, including their own journals, Lewis and Clark depended on Sacagawea as a guide and a tracker, and her knowledge of local plants and animals was essential. She served as an intermediary between the exploration party and tribes wary of the visitors, and is credited with saving documents chronicling the expedition that had fallen into a river when one of the expedition’s boats capsized.

The Charlottesville statue doesn’t capture any of that, critics say.

“I don’t think it’s an accurate representation of what she did and how she participated,” said Rebecca Jager, a retired history professor and author of “Malinche, Pocahontas, and Sacagawea: Indian Women as Cultural Intermediaries and National Symbols.” “If people actually read the [Lewis and Clark] journals, they would understand how prominent and important she was in negotiating this new future for her people and the Americans.”

Outside of her participation in the Lewis and Clark expedition, little is known about Sacagawea and how she spent the rest of her life. There is even debate about where and when she died. But her contributions to the exploration of early America established Sacagawea as one of the few Native American women whose names are widely known and studied in school.

Kenneth Branham, chief of the Monacan Indian Nation, said he views Sacagawea as central to America’s story. He and his tribe joined Sacagawea’s descendants in Charlottesville in mid-November to support efforts to remove the statue.

“I’ve never been a big fan of the statue because I know the real story and in the statue she’s like an afterthought,” Branham said. “If she hadn’t been with them, it wouldn’t have been a successful journey. They would have failed.”