So Long, Sacagawea

The City Council of Charlottesville, Virginia has voted to remove a statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea, their Shoshone interpreter, from a street in the city:

The city council voted to direct city staff to create a plan for the removal of the West Main Street statue commemorating the Lewis and Clark expedition during a work session Friday.
At the work session, councilors discussed the statue with Native Americans and some of Sacagawea’s descendants, who traveled to Charlottesville from Idaho.

Rose Ann Abrahamson, a descendant of Sacagawea and a Shoshone-Bannock woman, said she has seen nearly every depiction of her ancestor in the country.

“This statue in Charlottesville was the worst we have ever seen,” she said.

It is interesting that the statue isn’t controversial because it depicts Lewis and Clark, who are hard to criticize from a “woke” perspective. Rather, the objection is to the depiction of Sacagawea:

Abrahamson said the statue shows Sacagawea “cowering and recoiling.” She said it should be in a location where it can become an “object of discussion of America’s intolerant past.”

…Emma George, another descendant, and Abrahamson’s children recently saw it for the first time.

“I can say for myself, it did bring shame. It made me feel sadness and worthlessness, and that’s not how I was brought up,” Dustina Abrahamson, one of Abrahamson’s daughters, said as she struggled to put her emotions into words.

George, with her voice breaking, said, “This morning I went out there to look at that statue. It did not make me feel good at all. It was humiliating.”

Here is the statue:

Is the Indian woman “cowering,” or somehow shameful or humiliating? She is sitting on a rock. The sculptor evidently wanted to place the three figures on different levels for aesthetic effect. So one of the explorers is standing on a higher part of the rock, while the other is standing a foot or so lower, and Sacagawea is sitting on the rock. Lewis and Clark are naturally the main focus of the sculpture, but I see no reason to describe Sacagawea as cowering, nor is there anything obviously shameful or humiliating about her presence in the group. On the contrary, it was obviously intended to be complimentary to her. Somewhat perversely, these people would evidently have been happy if Sacagawea were not on the statue at all.

I ran across a column in a local Virginia newspaper about the statue (an image, so I can’t link to it). This is how the writer describes it:

Sculptor Charles Keck of New York designed and erected the statue in 1919. According to a 1919 Natural History Magazine, “the statue’s title is ‘Their first view of the Pacific,’ and the artist represented Sacajawea ‘bending forward, intent on the vast expanse of ocean.'”

The author also notes that Sacagawea was captured and taken as a slave by the Minetarees. She was married to a Frenchman named Charbonneau, who, it has been speculated, may have won her in a card game. This history likely explains why she was enthusiastic about joining the expedition.

Lewis and Clark thought poorly of Charbonneau and highly of Sacagawea, who was only around 16 when she joined the expedition. Lewis wrote of Charbonneau in his expedition journal that he “would have been a minus factor if not for his wife, Sacajawea.” Sacagawea (the conventional spelling apparently has been changed, for some reason) has become a rather legendary figure, and her role in the expedition is probably exaggerated in popular memory. Nevertheless, it is indisputable that Lewis and Clark both respected her and valued her as an interpreter when they were in Shoshone country, as well as for other reasons.

On one occasion their boat nearly capsized, apparently because of Charbonneau’s incompetence at the steering oar, after which Lewis wrote in his journal:

The Indian woman (carrying her baby at that time) to whom I ascribe equal fortitude and resolution with any person on board at the time of the accident, caught and preserved most of the light articles which were washed overboard.

Back to the Charlottesville newspaper story:

“At this time in history, when this statue was developed, that was a time when my people, indigenous people, were not viewed as human beings,” Willow Abrahamson said.

That is a ridiculous claim, both in general and as applied to the Lewis and Clark expedition, or the statue.

Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham said the statue doesn’t depict “true history” and Sacagawea’s role in the expedition.

I don’t know how a statue is supposed to depict “true history” or depict, with any specificity, Sacagawea’s role, but this one obviously honors Sacagawea by singling her out for inclusion along with the two leaders of the expedition.

Dustina Abrahamson said Lewis and Clark were “good men” and should be depicted in a new statue alongside Sacagawea as equals.

So the problem is that Sacagawea is sitting on the rock.

One public comment speaker at Friday’s meeting mentioned York, an African American slave who was passed down to Clark by Clark’s father and joined the group’s expedition. They recommended including him in a new statue to incorporate another forgotten person of color in the expedition.
Willow Abrahamson said her motivation is to show equality.

“I think the main thing and the point we want to get across is — not one group deserves more representation than another,” she said.

Far from being forgotten, York, along with Sacagawea, is probably the only person other than Lewis and Clark themselves, whose name is widely remembered. But if the issue is equal representation, how about the other forty or so white men who went on the expedition? Why don’t they deserve to be on a statue?

Finally, this:

Mayor Nikuyah Walker said “it would be a challenge for me” to keep Lewis and Clark in the statue because of the historical mistreatment of African Americans throughout the country’s history.

What on God’s green Earth Lewis and Clark have to do with “the historical mistreatment of African Americans” is anyone’s guess. The moral of the story is, no statue is safe.

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