Rose Ann Abrahamson has seen nearly every depiction of her ancestor Sacajawea in the United States.
“This statue in Charlottesville is the worst we have ever seen,” she told City Council at a meeting on November 15, referring to the statue of Lewis, Clark, and Sacagawea on West Main Street. The imposing monument depicts the Shoshone guide cowering at the feet of the two Virginian explorers.
After nearly five hours of conversation, (and years of local debate) City Council voted 4-0 to remove the statue. Councilor Mike Signer left before the vote, citing a professional commitment.
Though the statue has been a source of controversy for years, the idea of removing it came up again last year, as Council considered a new streetscape plan for West Main that would require moving the statue roughly 20 feet. In a June meeting, City Council declined to form a commission to study the issue, instead deciding to invite Native American consultants to weigh in at a special work session.
The morning began with a traditional Shoshone smudging ceremony, led by Emma George, a descendant of Sacagawea. George delivered a blessing while other Shoshone visitors walked in a circle, holding bunches of smoldering herbs and stirring the fragrant smoke with feathers.
George and Abrahamson, who traveled to Charlottesville from Idaho, were among multiple Native delegations who voiced their displeasure with the monument.
“It made me feel sadness and worthlessness,” said Dustina Abrahamson, Rose Ann’s daughter. “And that’s not how I was brought up.”
Kenneth Branham, the chief of the local Monacan nation, said he has 11 grandchildren and that he wouldn’t want them to see the statue. “I ask that the statue be removed, because it doesn’t depict the truth,” Branham said.
The statue was erected in 1919, a gift from Paul Goodloe McIntire, the same donor responsible for the Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson statues. In 2009, a plaque detailing Sacagawea’s contributions was placed near the foot of the monument, but her subservient position (some have argued that she is tracking) has remained a source of contention.
The Native American representatives showed no such confusion about the monument’s message, and advocated for its swift removal. “The first thing we need to do is — do you have a truck and a chain?” Rose Ann Abrahamson said.
That sense of urgency propelled City Council to bend procedural tradition, writing a resolution requesting a plan for the statue’s removal and then passing it in the same meeting.
Councilor Kathy Galvin initially voiced concerns about the decision to proceed directly to a vote on the resolution without allowing more time for public comment, but eventually yielded. “The substance of the matter outweighs the concerns about process,” Galvin said. “We have to be committed to doing both right.”
“There will be no paved road for the path that we’re on,” Mayor Nikuyah Walker said, advocating for a situational exception to the council’s traditional operations.
As this statue is not a war memorial, it does not fall under the same legal protections that have kept the Lee and Jackson monuments in place.
The plan will still have to be approved in a separate City Council vote, and the cost of transporting and rehousing the statue has not yet been evaluated. Council also did not specify where the statue will go, although the Lewis and Clark Exploratory Center has volunteered to house it. City staff have been directed to present Council with a plan for a new statue of Sacagawea and other memorializations of Virginia native peoples.
When the council passed the resolution, Rose Ann Abrahamson led her family in a victorious whoop. “Today we are going to make history,” she said.
Addressing the council, George added: “I would like to thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Updated 11/18/19 to note plans for a new statue.