Monumental Meanings: Indigenous Perspectives on Monuments

Charlottesville Sacagewea sculpture

On the evening of November 14, the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection and the UVA Native American Student Union (NASU) hosted a remarkable panel discussion entitled “Monumental Meanings: Indigenous Perspectives on Monuments.” 

Kasey Keeler, Native American Studies Postdoctoral Fellow at the American Studies Program, moderated the discussion, and briefly described her research, which deploys federal Indian policy, housing policy, land, property, suburbanization, place making, public memory and public history to explore suburbs as spaces of continuous American Indian presence. 

Panelist Karenne Wood is a member of the Monacan Indian Nation and director of the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for Humanities.  Her presentation focused on native modes of marking spaces of significance, and how those traditions differ from European modes of memorialization.  She argued that indigenous commemorative forms are communal rather than singular or heroic, and that constructions like burial mounds serve as multi-dimensional symbols, reinforcing both the communal aspects of tribal life, and the physical and spiritual connections between the human body and the land.  Wood also highlighted the numerous instances of desecration, destruction, and conscious raiding of native sacred sites in Virginia by European farmers and notable figures like Thomas Jefferson.  While these purposeful erasures have led to a myth that native people are a relic of the past, Wood concluded with stressing the importance of interpreting Native presence into the present, that Monacans and other Virginia tribes are still here, still an active part of the social fabric of Virginia.

Jeffrey Hantman is a professor in the UVA department of Anthropology, and his presentation focused on his efforts with Karenne Wood and other American Indian collaborators to write new texts for the Virginia Historical Highway Markers Program.  He spoke of a path to sanctification of sites associated with state violence and injustices perpetrated against native peoples, and that highway markers can be a first step toward recognition of these difficult histories. 

Benaiah Walters is President of UVA’s NASU and delivered a forceful statement challenging Charlottesville’s public depictions of native people.  Two statues, the George Rogers Clarke statue near UVA grounds, and the sculpture of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and Sacagawea at the intersection of Main and Ridge Streets depict Native Americans, but as servants, as stereotypes lacking individuality, and as historical artifacts.  He argued that these depictions continue to signal the marginalization and erasure of native people from state narratives, and reinforce a “manufactured lineage of American identity” that sanctifies false images of both native people, and the supposed heroes of the European-American colonial project.

Last was a presentation from Julie Gough, an indigenous Tasmanian artist.  She spoke of the Tasmania’s “national amnesia” evidenced by sparse commemoration of the large-scale massacre of indigenous people, who numbered around five thousand at the time of colonization in 1803, but were reduced to under fifty people through state-sanctioned murder.  She spoke of the few modest markers of indigenous individuals, which often tell false stories of European benevolence, masking stories of cruelty and isolation. She then turned to mainland Australia, where incidences of graffiti of major sculptures of colonial “heroes” like Captain Cook, Queen Victoria, and Lachlan Macquarie have triggered heated public debates about the forms of public commemoration that have startling similarity to recent debates in Virginia.

In combination, these speakers gave a compelling counterpoint to the cultural assumptions held by western settlers who saw the American and Australian continents as terra nullius, unimproved land ripe for conquest.  They have provided a window into the human toll of colonialism, and uncovered some of the erasures that have enabled the continued dispossession of native people.  Their presentations suggest numerous possibilities and responsibilities for researchers, designers, historians, and others working in lands violently seized from indigenous people.