The statue, which was unveiled in November 1921, depicts what appears to be the moment before a murder. Clark, who was born in Albemarle County, is dubbed the “Conqueror of the Northwest” on the plinth, rides high atop his horse, a couple of his men behind him, charging into a group of Native American people — including a woman with a baby wrapped in a cradleboard.
Clark fought against the British and both with and against Indigenous nations, whose loyalties to the British, the Americans, the French or other Native American nations, varied by tribe, Bigelow said. Clark constantly turned his back on — and murdered — people who thought him to be an ally, she added.
“He eliminated entire communities, because he did not see a path forward to nationhood [that included] Indian nations,” said Bigelow. “What he did would now be called ethnic cleansing.”
In recent years, the statue has been repeatedly splashed with red paint, attempts at reminding the community of the bloodshed Clark committed and inspired across North America.
Now that the statue is gone, the committee will decide what to do with the statue and what will go on the land in its stead. The committee will move forward on a path guided by a “circles of impact” model, which comes from trauma theory and has been adapted for this process by committee member and anthropologist Virginia Busby.
Imagine a pinpoint at the center of a circle. Around that first circle is a second, and around the second circle, a third. The pinpoint is the George Rogers Clark statue, and the first circle is composed of current and former Native American UVA students (and faculty and staff) who’ve had to walk past it in their time on Grounds. In the second circle are the 11 Virginia Indigenous nations. And in the third sphere, all of the tribes and nations that have documented or potential history with George Rogers Clark.
The idea is that the people who’ve been most affected, the people in that first circle surrounding, have the most say, the people in the second circle the next most say and then the third, explained Bigelow.
Representatives from the first circle, including members of the Native American Student Union at UVA, as well as representatives from Virginia Indigenous nations, sit on the committee. At the moment, the committee is not quite sure what role members of other Indigenous tribes and nations in the U.S. and Canada will have, but at the very least, they have been invited to formally consult in the process and will be heard, Bigelow said.
It’s taken work to identify people in that third circle. “The statue, in its incredibly violent, racist depiction of conquest, does not include any markers of tribal identity” of the Native Americans in the scene, Bigelow said. On the recommendations of more than two dozen scholars of early North America, as well as tribal preservation officers, she read a variety of books, articles and maps in order to identify the tribes and nations that Clark affected, or may have affected.
Bigelow shared the spreadsheet of her findings with Charlottesville Tomorrow, and in addition to the 11 tribes in present-day Virginia (seven of which are federally recognized), she identified 58 other potential non-Virginia tribes. Ryan met with the Virginia tribal chiefs, who also received a letter inviting their participation in this process; Ryan also sent letters to the 56 non-Virginia tribes whose contact information Bigelow could track down.
They’re hearing from tribes right now, said Bigelow, and some have accepted the invitation while others have shared their thanks but have declined for a variety of reasons, from having more pressing issues (like COVID-19, finding money for underfunded tribal programs, etc.) to address within their own tribes.
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