The Lewis and Clark statue at the intersection of West Main Street has been the center of controversy for some time—last month, police removed a mysterious, red-stained, human-shaped figure made of masking tape from the base of the statue that was aiming a makeshift bow and arrow up at the explorers. One local says it’s finally time to remove or replace the landmark that so many have complained about.
Controversy surrounding the statue often stems from the third figure present in the memorial: Sacagawea. Documented in history as the explorers’ guide in their 1803 to 1806 expedition up the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean, many believe the monument embodies an ethnic and gender bias that doesn’t depict the Native American woman fairly.
The statue was made by Charles Keck and dedicated in 1921, but not until 2009 was a plaque commemorating Sacagawea’s contributions to the expedition placed on the monument.
David Stackpole, a Charlottesville resident of 18 years, calls the “simple plaque” the “perfect remedy if you’re standing no more than two feet away from it in the middle of traffic and on the right side [of the sculpture] to see it.”
He takes note of Sacagawea’s crouched stance in comparison with the towering explorers above her. She has a “concave, self-protected frame,” with her hands pulled close to her body, which contrasts, Stackpole says, with the “flared chests” and open postures of Meriwether Lewis—an Albemarle native—and William Clark. As the Native American gazes downward, the men stare off into the horizon, and while Sacagawea’s bent knees suggest exhaustion and the need for rest, Stackpole says the explorers stand with a “readied, strongly erect stance.”
Many have spoken out against the statue, including performance artist Jennifer Hoyt Tidwell, who organized the 2007 Columbus Day protest in which she and several other women gathered near the statue in support of Sacagawea and dressed in evening gowns, donning sashes with names such as “Miss Representation” and “Miss Informed.” She collected 500 signatures to correct the portrayal of the Native American, and as a result, the 2009 plaque was mounted.
Recalling the unveiling of the plaque, Hoyt Tidwell says City Council invited Sacagawea’s Shoshone descendants. She was disappointed when Council didn’t mention the protest or introduce her to the Native Americans and, instead, accepted intricately beaded purses and garments from the descendants on their own behalf.
“It reminded me of how Sacagawea in that statute was not given credit for her role and neither was I,” she says.
Stackpole says the plaque isn’t enough. And he thinks Lewis and Clark might agree.
“If you were to read how these two great men adored and respected her, you would be convinced they, too, would take issue with this,” Stackpole says, adding that he wants the statue removed, replaced or counterbalanced by a sibling statue that depicts the woman’s contributions. He is currently gathering signatures on a petition that he will submit to Council.
Andre Cavalcante, an assistant professor at UVA, says he and his students support Stackpole’s efforts. Raising the question to his Gender Nonconformity in Media class, Cavalcante says students agreed almost universally that the statue is historically inaccurate and offensive.
“The class agreed that this kind of representation belongs in a museum,” he says, “a place where it can exist as a part of history and be critiqued for its misrepresentation.” Noting that the statue would not be erased from history, he says, “preserving the story of both monuments and highlighting that social change and progress are indeed possible.”
But those at the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center in Darden Towe Park think the statue should stay as it is.
“I understand the gender and racial issues of these historical statues,” says Executive Director Alexandria Searls. “But I also think that history on some level has to be understood from a more evolved viewpoint.”
Searls wrote a letter to City Council February 9 saying if the statue had to be moved, she would accept it at the exploratory center where it could be contextualized. Many historical figures are imperfect, she says, speaking generally of the past, “to remove whatever has any guilt associated with it is to remove everything.”