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Proposal reimagines George Rogers Clark statue park as future site of Center for Indigenous Studies at U.Va.

The statue, a depiction of state violence against Native Americans, was found defaced twice in the past week as it sustains growing criticism

On Thursday, after sustaining damage to Clark's neck, the statue was surrounded with construction fencing and guarded by an Ambassador.
On Thursday, after sustaining damage to Clark's neck, the statue was surrounded with construction fencing and guarded by an Ambassador.

The University’s George Rogers Clark Statue continues to garner significant public criticism for its blatant display of Clark’s violence against indigenous people. On Monday morning, University police discovered the statue and pedestal covered in red paint, which facilities workers removed, and University police logged that Clark’s head was “nearly decapitated” the following day. 

The statue was discovered splattered with red paint Monday. The paint was removed by University facilities workers. (Photo by Jenn Brice | The Cavalier Daily)

These incidents came just a week after the University’s new Racial Equity Task Force formally recommended that the University remove the Clark statue from the Corner while “working with the local indigenous community to reimagine what might embody the space where the statue currently stands.” The task force also calls on the University to create a Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies and establish a Tribal Liaison, in an effort to restore indigenous nations’ platforms.

Anthony Guy Lopez led plans to do just that, as head of the University’s George Rogers Clark Statue Disposition Committee and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Group at U.Va.

“The University is arguably one of the great American public universities, but how could it be great if there’s just a complete void where American Indian people should be?” Lopez said in an interview with The Cavalier Daily. 

Lopez, an enrolled member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, graduated from the University with a master’s in anthropology in 2009. He began formally advocating for an Indigenous Studies Center two years ago and is the co-founder of the working group for Native American and Indigenous Studies at U.Va.

The working group’s disposition committee, which Lopez chairs, proposes that the University repurpose the park space as the location for a multi-story Native American and Indigenous Studies Center on the approximately one-acre site — of which they have identified an estimated 4,000-5,000 square feet of buildable area. 

Currently, the proposal states, the George Rogers Clark Statue is the only property on Grounds that recognizes American Indians in any significant way. The imagery depicts Clark, who was born in Albemarle County and served as a military officer in the Revolutionary and Northwest Indian Wars, with the title “Conqueror of the Northwest” inscribed on the statue’s base.

The 99-year-old monument places Clark on horseback alongside three fellow armed American soldiers, as they confront a group of three Native Americans. A woman cowers away from Clark and covers an infant child, and another member of the party crouches, shielding his face from Clark.

This is an image of genocidal violence, not of any honorable military victory, says rising third-year College student Zac Russell, who is a Cherokee Nation citizen and social chair of the Native American Students Union at the University.

“The statue depicts U.S. soldiers standing over comparatively unarmed Natives, seemingly ambushed unprovoked and portrayed as the noble savage, with George Rogers Clark horseback, leading them and ready to slaughter these Natives simply for the expansion of the ‘superior’ white man’s territory,” Russell explained in a statement to The Cavalier Daily.

Russell added that they fully support Lopez and the disposition committee’s initiative to remove the monument, noting that replacing the statue with a space supporting the University’s indigenous population would be “the best way to do that.” According to the proposal, the space is envisioned as a place for education, meetings and cultural gatherings, supportive services and administration, and other community needs.

“The statue’s presence is an unadulterated celebration of the genocide of Native people and has no place at the University,” Russell added. “It should have never been placed and removal is long overdue.”

The committee notes that the decision of where to place the Center should ultimately be contingent upon the consent of the Monacan Indian Nation — who occupied much of what is now University land — and other indigenous stakeholder communities, such as the 11 Virginia Indian Tribes and the descendant nations of the Shawnee and Miami Indian Nations, who are represented in the statue.

Along with the need for a physical space to build community, Lopez also acknowledged institutional supports where the University falls behind peer institutions in terms of attracting and retaining a robust population of indigenous students and faculty.

Between 2009 and 2019, the population of Native American faculty at the University fell from 0.12 percent to zero percent, the disposition committee’s proposal notes. In 2018, 19 individuals — or just 0.12 percent of the University’s undergraduate student population — identified as Native American or Alaskan, marking a decline in indigenous student enrollment from 2009, when 26 individuals identified as Native American or Alaskan, comprising 0.18 percent of the undergraduate student body at the time.

Specifically, Lopez said that the University lacks support in the form of an indigenous studies academic program and in its lack of active recruitment of indigenous prospective students and faculty.

Virginia Tech, for example, has an American Indian and Indigenous Community Center, American Indian studies minor and has committed to developing relations with the 11 Virginia Indian Tribes. In the 2017-18 academic year, 39 total undergraduates at Virginia Tech identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native.

“Why has the University of Virginia not done that? What is the obstacle?” Lopez asks. “I think it's kind of a symbolic obstacle, a figurative thing that you can trace to the George Rogers Clark statue. That's the statement that the University of Virginia has made, and it has not advanced beyond that.”

The recent task force recommendation follows years of mounting criticism from indigenous voices and community criticism. Lopez recalls that he first began advocating for the statue’s removal as a student during then-University President John T. Casteen III’s tenure. According to Lopez, this advocacy was dismissed by Casteen, and later by President Teresa Sullivan. He notes that President Jim Ryan is the first administrator open to hearing the call to remove the harmful iconography.

Last August, a local petition for the University to remove the statue garnered 675 signatures. Ryan passed the recommendation along to the University’s President’s Commission on the University in the Age of Segregation.

In October, NASU, the Latinx Student Alliance, Political Latinxs United for Movement and Action in Society, Virginia Student Environmental Coalition and Central Americans for Empowerment co-hosted a march to the site to commemorate Indigenous People’s Day, protesting national observance of Columbus Day.

The following month, the statue was found defaced with red paint, which the University covered with a tarp and later removed.

Just last month, UVAToday published an in-depth PCUAS account of the statue’s place in the local community as one of four divisive monuments erected in Charlottesville between 1916 and 1924. Along with the statues recognizing Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, the Clark memorial and, similarly, the Meriwether Lewis and William Clark statue are described as “powerful symbols of white supremacy,” according to researchers.

“The Lee and Jackson statues perpetuate the myth of the Lost Cause and actively distort American history,” the report reads. “The monuments to George Rogers Clark and Lewis and Clark do much the same: they aid in sustaining many of the most destructive myths about American Indians.”

Ryan is currently reviewing the Racial Equity Task Force recommendations and is scheduled to present them to the University’s Board of Visitors at its next meeting, which was set to occur Monday but has been postponed and has yet to be rescheduled, according to University communications. The Board is responsible for long-term planning at the University, which includes approving policy and budget decisions.

“Once President Ryan has concluded his review, he plans to discuss the report with the Board of Visitors next month, and will then announce next steps for moving this work forward,” said Wes Hester, deputy University spokesperson and director of media relations. “President Ryan is grateful for the task force’s hard work and for the community input that enabled this important undertaking over the past several weeks.”

Following the multiple incidents of "vandalism" this week, the University stationed Ambassadors outside the monument and surrounded the statue with two layers of fencing.

“Out of concern for public safety, a temporary construction fence has been erected around the George Rogers Clark statue as Facilities Management works to assess damage to the statue after multiple acts of vandalism,” Hester said.

UPD is investigating the incident and has requested that anyone with information contact the department. There are no identified suspects at this time.

Upon seeing the red paint covering the statue Monday morning, Nursing Prof. Kathryn Laughon, tweeted support for the public contextualization of Clark’s violence, asking why the University has not yet removed the piece.

In a written message to The Cavalier Daily, Laughon expressed her support for the disposition committee’s work and reiterated her hope that the University take swift action removing the Clark statue.

“This monument is particularly horrific — it is an actual representation of genocide, at the entrance to the University, adjacent to the medical building that serves women and children,” Laughon added.

Lopez attributes the growing denormalization of the statue to the recent widespread, public awakening to the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police brutality.

“We are beholden to George Floyd, the African American community and all the communities that stood up within Minnesota and around the country that have decided, ‘Nope, we are not going to accept these kinds of racist, violent, inequitable institutional edifices or structures,’” Lopez said.

He anticipates that until the site is repurposed, members of the public will continue to evoke emotions and expressions of outrage toward the property, just as protestors have demonstrated at other monuments to white supremacy in Charlottesville, Richmond and nationally.

“It’s not worth guarding,” Lopez said. “It’s not worth University resources to protect. Why don’t they just take it down, and give us the cultural center to work with? The human beings depicted in this, they have ancestors that descended, and that’s us … When are they going to honor the humanity of native peoples at this University, instead of graffiti or paint?”