Alexandria Searls was just as surprised as everyone else when she was called 30 minutes before a special City Council meeting about removing Charlottesville’s statue of explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and Shoshone interpreter Sacagawea to state her case for receiving the statue.
Searls is executive director of the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center in Darden Towe Park in Albemarle County. When the city removed its Confederate statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on July 10, Searls had plans to spend the day hiking some local trails.
“Being on standby for the emergency meeting was really a miracle of me not feeling well. That day I had wanted to go out into the trails,” Searls said, laughing.
While the City Council voted in November 2019 to remove the Lewis-Clark-Sacagawea statue and then on July 7 of this year voted to fund its removal along with the Confederate statues, there were no actual removal plans in place yet.
Team Henry Enterprises was only contracted to remove the Lee and Jackson statues on July 10. But when those two statues were taken down easier and faster than expected, Team Henry offered to remove the Lewis-Clark-Sacagawea statue at no additional cost to the city.
In a special meeting announced to the public 20 minutes prior to its start, the City Council voted to approve a resolution that said the statue shall be removed from West Main Street and transported to a storage location owned, or co-owned, by the city, and authorized the city manager to carry out this relocation.
Searls was on the Zoom call to discuss the potential of relocating the statue to the Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center.
“I got this call on Saturday, and [was told] ‘in 30 minutes here, you can make your case for it to come to the museum.’ And so I made my case, but if you’ve seen that emergency meeting, I sort of was laughing a little bit at myself,” Searls said.
The council decided to wait rather than make an immediate decision on the final disposition of the statue, but councilors were supportive of the idea of it being brought to the center. After it was removed, the statue was transported to a lot in Darden Towe Park, where it sits today.
“I really hope we get to keep it here,” Searls said.
A long process
The Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center has had its eye on the statue as early as the first protests to remove it in the early 2000s.
“I knew people who did love the statue, and I knew people who really couldn’t stand it. We were kind of urged to be willing to take it as a compromise position, to sort of be the place where we could interpret the negativity of it and also keep the positivity of it and have people be able to reflect on it within context. So eventually, we wrote a letter to City Council saying that,” Searls said.
The museum hosted a dinner and discussion for some of Sacagawea’s descendants and other Shoshone-Bannock tribe members who came to Charlottesville to see the statue. Many of the visitors supported the idea of the center taking the statue and recontextualizing it alongside Native American art and exhibits.
The city added a plaque below the statue in 2009 to honor Sacagawea, and members of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, including some of Sacagawea’s descendants, came to the unveiling. However, there were still concerns about the statue itself.
In 2019, councilors discussed the statue with Native Americans, including descendants of Sacagawea, who traveled to Charlottesville from Idaho. This resulted in the vote to remove the statue, which has been criticized for its portrayal of Sacagawea in a crouched position below Lewis and Clark.
Rose Ann Abrahamson, a descendant of Sacagawea and a Shoshone-Bannock woman, said during a council work session in 2019 that 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.
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.”
Some historians have interpreted Sacagawea’s kneeling position as her directing the explorers and tracking.
An article in Natural History magazine from 1919, the same year the statue was erected on West Main Street, says the artist, Charles Keck, represented Sacagawea as “Bending forward, intent on the vast expanse of the ocean.”
Searls has had the chance to meet some of Keck’s family members to discuss the future of the statue, and found out some of the background behind the statue.
“[Keck] was massively in debt … he had borrowed money from a friend he had to pay back. He took whatever commission went his way. And he took the Lewis and Clark [commission], and [the commissioner] didn’t want Sacagawea. They hadn’t requested her. And he made the choice to put her in. And so basically, she’s the only part of his legacy that was his choice,” she said.
Searls submitted a formal statement of interest in the statue on behalf of the exploratory center on July 6.
When the City Council voted on July 7 to appropriate $1 million for the removal of all three statues, Searls was surprised and contacted some city staff members to see if they knew if there were plans to remove the Lewis-Clark-Sacagawea statue, and they all told her they didn’t know. She didn’t find anything else out until she was called to make a case for the center on July 10, and has yet to hear back from the city.
The city has not released plans for a vote for the final disposition of the statue.
The Lewis & Clark Exploratory Center is located in a somewhat unassuming building. The museum has two main rooms — one for group events and another housing most of its artifacts relating to the Lewis and Clark expedition and Native American art.
Searls and one other employee run the center, which primarily operates off grant funding and some National Park Service money.
“What I’d like to convey is that we’re a small organization. We encourage people to ask questions and as an organization, we ask more questions than we give answers to. So intellectual freedom is really important to us and we will try to present different accounts of the same events,” Searls said.
Searls said a lot of people assume that the museum intends to glorify Lewis and Clark and westward expansion, but the center likes to analyze the expedition from a more critical lens and particularly focuses on the exploitation of Native Americans. The museum offers a lot of interactive programming to engage visitors in this type of critical thinking.
Searls said the museum was formed in honor of the bicentennial celebration of the Lewis and Clark expedition in 2006. Lewis and Clark were both Virginians, with Lewis being an Albemarle County native. Thomas Jefferson commissioned their expedition.
“This land is very much related to the local story,” Searls said.
If the city chooses to transfer ownership of the statue to the museum, Searls wants to focus the contextualization on the epidemic of missing and exploited indigenous women.
“Our proposal is that we make a fabric that references [Shoshone] culture, and that it be red, because red is the color that … represents missing indigenous women. And then there’ll be something involved initially with covering everything but [Sacagawea] and also featuring other indigenous artworks relating to that,” she said.
Searls said the idea to focus on missing and exploited indigenous women came from one of Sacagawea’s descendants, Justine Abrahamson.
Searls also has decided she would want the statue displayed apart from its base so visitors could get a closer look. This would also allow a better view of the statue’s frieze, which Searls showed has images depicting interactions between Lewis, Clark, Sacagawea and the Shoshone tribe.
Searls wants to expand the museum’s collection of artifacts. While the current collection includes items related directly to the expedition, it also includes several pieces of Native American art.
“We would really love more sculpture to sort of counteract or to bring forward a different message [to the statue],” she said.
Searls is realistic, however, and knows the museum will need to rely on grant funding to create an exhibit.
“We have very little money, especially after COVID,” she said.
Searls voiced concern that a wealthier organization could gain ownership of the statue.
As of July 22, 10 other statements of interest had been submitted to the city, according to documents obtained by The Daily Progress.
In February, the city issued a formal request for information in an effort to determine if any individual or organization would be willing to “safely remove, relocate and take ownership of” the statue. One entity, Lynchburg Crane, responded to the request.
Ten expressions of interest, including Searls’ proposal, were submitted in July. Two came from private citizens.
The town of Goshen in Virginia; the Gettysburg Sculpture Museum in Pennsylvania; and the Controversial Art Trust in Charlotte, North Carolina, all submitted statements of interest for the Lewis-Clark-Sacagawea statue, in addition to statements of interest for the Lee and Jackson statues.
St. Charles, Missouri, and Miles City, Montana, both submitted statements of interest, citing their cities’ connections to the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in Fort Berthold, North Dakota, also submitted a statement of interest to place the statue at its interpretive center, citing Sacagawea’s connection to the tribe.