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What are we celebrating?

Happy Thanksgiving from The Kudzu Project! Early this morning, we installed knitted kudzu on the University of Virginia's statue of George Rogers Clark, who is touted as the "Conquerer of the Northwest."

Depicted on horseback, Clark is surrounded by six figures on the ground. The three men at the rear of the horse are members of Clark's party, armed with rifles and a cask of gunpowder. They are described in the UVA Alumni News as "Indian hunters prepared to aid (Clark)."

At the head of the horse are three Native Americans: two men and a woman protecting a cradleboard. One of the men stands defiantly in front of Clark while the other remains on the ground, knife in hand. According to the Alumni News, Clark is depicted "parlaying with two apparently hostile chiefs...evidently explaining the futility of a resistance." While Clark's open-palmed gesture may seem innocuous, UVA architectural historian Louis Nelson maintains he is reaching for a rifle that has been prepared by one of his supporters. What is the true purpose of this statue and what does it celebrate?

The statue dominates a small park directly across from The Graduate Hotel at the intersection of University Avenue and Main Street in Charlottesville. It was given to UVA in 1921 by Paul Goodloe McIntire, the same man who donated Charlottesville's equestrian statues of Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson and a fourth statue of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea. In examining both the subject matter and the location of these monuments, Nelson says they comprise "the material legacy of Charlottesville's history of white supremacy."

Clark is a Revolutionary War figure who captured a number of British and French forts along the western frontier (in present-day Indiana) in 1778-79. One account reveals the extreme brutality of his treatment of Indigenous people. After capturing a small group of Native Americans outside Fort Sackville near Vincennes, Clark "gave the order to have the four prisoners tomahawked in front of the surrounded garrison. Paraded into a circle opposite the front of the main gate to the fort, their hands and feet bound, the Indians were killed one by one, singing their death songs." This horrific scene caused the British to quickly surrender to Clark.

A Native American friend who hosted a delegation of Indigenous leaders at UVA was horrified to see the statue of George Rogers Clark in front of their hotel on the Corner. As we grapple with the message Confederate monuments send to our citizens and visitors, might we think twice about all of our historical statues? Let's learn the true history of the people they celebrate and decide if these figures are deserving of monuments.

And because it is Thanksgiving, here is a short article revealing some of the historical inaccuracies associated with this day. Karenne Wood, Director of Virginia Indians Programs at Virginia Humanities and an enrolled member of the Monacan Nation said, "For all of us, the truth lies in confronting the present as it re-presents the past and in examining current injustices. If we want a history that is closer to the truth, we need to create and recreate our stories in the present."

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