On November 14, first-year Yale School of Medicine MD student Sydney Aquilina, a tribal member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, accepted a proclamation issued by her hometown, Leesburg, Virginia. The proclamation “recognize(d) November as the National American Indian Heritage Month” and urged the town’s citizens “to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.”
“Words cannot convey how honored I am to receive this proclamation on the behalf of the Indigenous peoples who have inhabited the land of Leesburg across the centuries,” says Aquilina. The proclamation, she continues, “marks a significant step forward in Native American visibility, which is deeply needed not only in Leesburg but much of the nation.”
Aquilina describes how Leesburg, the temporary capital of the U.S. during the War of 1812, prides itself on its rich history, with plaques, statues, and other artwork prominently highlighting this history. However, none of these mention Indigenous peoples, even though many local landmarks, such as schools and creeks, have Indigenous names. This fact, in addition to her heritage, led Aquilina to conduct research about the town, on which she collaborated with her siblings—Thomas, Louis, and Shelby.
This past spring, Aquilina shared this research with Leesburg Mayor Kelly Burk, and proposed that a physical landmark be constructed in the town for three purposes: “(1) to honor the tribes who originally used, cared for, and inhabited this land, (2) to give visibility to the Indigenous people living in Leesburg today, whether or not Leesburg is their homeland or they have been displaced from their homeland to live here today, and (3) to provide the current and future residents of Leesburg with better awareness of the past and ongoing relationality of Leesburg’s land with Indigenous people.”
The mayor strongly supported Aquilina’s idea—connecting her with the town’s Thomas Balch Library Advisory Commission and Commission on Public Art (COPA)—as did the town council, which asked her to accept the National American Indian Heritage Month proclamation. Aquilina now is working with COPA on the logistics of enacting a statue with a plaque. She sees her work “as the continuation of a long friendship my people have had with the tribes indigenous to Leesburg and the surrounding area.”