After inhabiting Virginia land for 10,000 years, the Monacan Indian Nation finally receives federal recognition

Branch Branham, 79, never thought he’d live to see the day that the Monacan Indian Nation was a federally recognized tribe. One of the oldest living members of the tribe, he attended school at the Bear Mountain Mission School, where he is photographed, which taught Monacan children in Amherst County before they were allowed to go to public schools in 1963. Photo by Eze Amos Branch Branham, 79, never thought he’d live to see the day that the Monacan Indian Nation was a federally recognized tribe. One of the oldest living members of the tribe, he attended school at the Bear Mountain Mission School, where he is photographed, which taught Monacan children in Amherst County before they were allowed to go to public schools in 1963. Photo by Eze Amos

Light rain falls softly and steady on patchy grass, whispering pat-pat-pat-pat as it dampens the rocky soil.

It’s late February, and despite the rain, the air is warm at the foot of Bear Mountain in Amherst County. Dean Branham isn’t wearing a jacket, and rain droplets bead and roll off his baseball cap onto his shoulders, darkening his plaid Oxford shirt.

Shirtsleeves rolled up and hands in the pockets of his khakis, Branham, 57, looks at a large, newish rectangular stone a few yards ahead. “Bear Mountain,” reads the inscription. “On this site are buried our Monacan ancestors: Johns, Branham, Hicks, Lawless, Beverly, Adcock, Redcross, Knuckles, Duff, Clark, Roberts, Nuckles, Willis, Hamilton, Terry. The first burial took place in the 1800’s [sic].”

“When I come up here, I think about all our older people who are buried here,” says Branham. His grandmother buried two of her children, twins, in this cemetery, though Branham’s not sure which of the unadorned lichen-covered stones on the sloped ground marks their grave.

He tugs on the bill of his cap as he looks around. Embroidered on the crown of the cap is the Monacan Indian Nation logo: two parallel arrows, one pointing up, the other pointing down, crossed in the center by a third arrow moving from left to right. It’s an apt representation of how the Monacan Indian Nation—its tens of thousands of ancestors and 2,300 living members scattered throughout Virginia, Maryland and the rest of the U.S.—is always on Branham’s mind. He’s served as chief of the tribe, currently Virginia’s largest, for the past three years; before that, he was assistant chief and sat on the tribal council for more than a decade.

Along with other tribe leaders and members of the tribal council, he organizes powwows and tribal gatherings, facilitates speaking engagements, fields drumming and dancing demonstration requests and talks to reporters. An electrician and technician for a heating and air company, Branham (like many other tribe leaders) devotes nearly all of his free time—not that there’s a lot of it after a 40-plus-hour work week—to the tribe. He even sweeps the floors in the Bear Mountain Indian Mission School located next to the Monacan Indian Nation Ancestral Museum, where he changes light bulbs, vacuums floors and leads visitors through the museum, pointing out pottery, baskets, beadwork and photographs in the glass cases. He also cuts the grass at the cemetery.

“It’s peaceful up here,” he says. “Most of these people in here are the ones who fought to prove their identity” as Monacan Indians, as Virginia Indians, he says. What’s more, in the early 1990s, five members of the tribe co-signed a loan to buy back the 112 acres of land that for generations had been the spiritual center of the Monacan Indian Nation.

Photo by Eze Amos

The Monacans’ struggle to preserve their history, heritage and identity has been a long, hard one. And while preservation is one thing, making it visible is something else entirely.

Though the Monacan people have occupied this very land for 10,000 years, the tribe was officially recognized by the United States government just six weeks ago.

“People who live within 50 miles of here don’t even know we exist,” says Branham. “Or, they knew it and didn’t want to acknowledge it.”

This land is their land

As is the case with many other American Indian tribes (and indigenous peoples around the world), the rich history of the Monacan people has been overlooked, largely written out of history books, says Karenne Wood, a poet and member of the Monacan Indian Nation who has a doctorate in linguistic anthropology and currently serves as director of Virginia Indian Programs at Virginia Humanities. Most people know only the English colonist version of American Indian history, starting with Jamestown in 1607 and ending in the 1700s.

Originally, the tribe’s territory covered more than half of the state of Virginia, including most of the Piedmont region and part of the Blue Ridge Mountains (Charlottesville and Albemarle County included). Monacan people have lived on the land at and around Bear Mountain for more than 10,000 years, making them one of the oldest groups of indigenous people still living on their ancestral homeland.

According to The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, a Virginia Foundation for the Humanities guidebook that Wood edited for publication in 2007, scientists believe that more than 10,000 years ago, in the Ohio River Valley, Siouan language-speaking people were unified before tribes started moving east and west, separating into Eastern and Western Siouan speakers. Monacan ancestors settled along the James River and spoke a language related to those of the Eastern Siouan tribes and related to—but still unique from—the Tutelo, Occaneechi and Saponi peoples near and in North Carolina. They were also affiliated with the Mannahoac, who occupied Virginia’s northern Piedmont region and disappeared from record in the 1720s.

Those Virginia Siouans grew corn, beans and squash and domesticated other food crops, including fruit trees, wild grapes, nuts and sunflowers, and lived in communities of domed dwellings made from bark and reed mats. The Monacan people hunted deer, elk and small game, and mined copper, which they traded with the Powhatans to the east and the Iroquois to the north. They buried their dead in mounds, a tradition that sets them apart from neighboring Indian nations. They danced, drummed, made baskets and pottery, played a form of stickball and had a vast knowledge of plant medicine.

Spanish explorers arrived in Central America in the 1500s, and the diseases they brought—smallpox and influenza among them—spread quickly to North America, wiping out entire tribes and reducing the population so much that the tribes were greatly disadvantaged—vulnerable, even—when English colonists landed at Jamestown in 1607.

Unlike their Powhatan neighbors near the Virginia coast, the Monacan people limited their contact with the English, “fearful,” in the words of Amoroleck, a Mannahoac man who spoke with John Smith in 1608, that the colonists had come “from the under world” to take their land from them. Colonist explorers visited Monacan communities and documented what they saw, but none of them stuck around long enough to learn Monacan languages. As a result, some of Virginia’s more eastern tribes are better documented in the colonists’ history.

Virginia Indians “kind of fade from the Virginia history books around 1700, once we’re no longer a ‘threat,’” says Wood. “And then, American Indians are cast as obstacles to civilization throughout the country. As the colonists move west onto their land, the Indians are chased off by the cavalry because they’re ‘in the way.’” But the colonists didn’t just chase the Indians away—they murdered them, even sold them into slavery in the Caribbean, and that brutality isn’t discussed nearly enough, says Wood.

“We’re invisible, but there’s this whole story of what has happened to us since 1607,” she says. “Over and over again in colonial history, you see Indians moving from one place to another, trying to stay what they were, merging with other tribes so that they could continue to be Indian.”

Currently, 11 Virginia Indian tribes are officially recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Seven of those tribes are recognized by the United States Government: the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi and Nansemond, as well as Monacan Indian Nation. Four Virginia Indian tribes—the Mattaponi, Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Nottoway and Patawomeck—are legally recognized by the state but not by the U.S. government.

A federally recognized tribe is no more or less legitimate than a tribe that is not federally recognized, says Eve Immonen, a fourth-year UVA student and member of the Native American Student Union. Immonen, who has Lakota Sioux and Chippewa/Ojibwe heritage, says, “it’s really important [to note] that these tribes all had inherent sovereignty” in Virginia, and federal recognition does not change a tribe’s identity or place in history. What’s more, not all tribes seek federal recognition.

Attending public events hosted by tribes is a great way to get to know a tribe, says Immonen. That way, you get to experience a tribe’s culture firsthand, which is the best way to learn. There are two coming up in the area this spring:

UVA’s Native American Student Union Powwow

April 7

UVA South Lawn

Monacan Indian Nation Powwow

May 19-20

Elon, Virginia

The Monacan people gradually moved west throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, away from advancing settlers. Some moved into Pennsylvania and Canada and were adopted by other tribes, while others stayed in Virginia, in present-day Amherst County, where, in the early 19th century, the modern Monacan Nation grew from the Oronoco settlement on Johns Creek.

And then, in the 20th century, a paper genocide that sought to systematically erase the identity of the Virginia Indian people caused so much damage its effects are still felt today.

The Monacan people generally agree that they (and other Virginia Indian tribes) have been most affected by the policies and ideologies of a man named Walter Ashby Plecker, registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. Plecker, a white supremacist and eugenics advocate, believed that there were only two races: “white” and “colored,” and that one drop of “colored” blood—which in reality was most everyone—classified a person as “colored.”

In 1924, the Virginia General Assembly passed and Governor E. Lee Trickle signed into law, the Plecker-backed Racial Integrity Act, which required Virginians to fill out a certificate of racial composition to be submitted and approved by the Bureau of Vital Statistics—Plecker’s office—and anyone who wanted to marry in Virginia had to have that certificate. The act further banned interracial marriage in Virginia.

An exception was made for those who had less than 1/64th “Indian blood” and no “negro blood,” i.e., elite Virginians who claimed to descend from Pocahontas and John Rolfe.

According to the Encyclopedia Virginia entry “Indians in Virginia,” “the law was vigorously opposed by Indians…who understood its implications: Legally speaking, Virginia Indians had ceased to exist.”

Many Monacan people moved out of the state to avoid the Racial Integrity Act—they wanted to maintain their identity as American Indians, and they wanted to marry whomever they wished.

Plecker retired in 1946, but his policies persisted—the Racial Integrity Act remained law in Virginia until 1967, when the Supreme Court ruled in the Loving v. Virginia case that barring interracial marriage was unconstitutional.

In the 1980s, the state of Virginia began granting recognition to Virginia Indian tribes. Monacan Indian Nation received state recognition in February 1989, but it would take more than that to legally reclaim their identity: Their birth certificates had to be adjusted, “colored” replaced with “Indian.” Governor George Allen simplified that process in 1997—just 21 years ago.

What it means to be Monacan

Branch Branham, 79, laughs as he slides behind a wooden desk in the Bear Mountain Indian Mission School. “This is where I used to sit!” he exclaims with delight. “In the back of the room.” Branch is Dean Branham’s second cousin; Branch was particularly close to Dean’s father, “like brothers,” Branch says, adding that the younger Branham calls him every day to say hello and check in.

Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the log cabin-style school—which was originally built around 1868 for church services in the Monacan community—has been renovated and doesn’t look exactly like it did when Branch was a student, but its wooden floor, low ceiling, wide-plank walls and wood stove conjure up plenty of memories of English lessons (his favorite), the cups of hot cocoa that missionary ladies across the street brought to the kids every morning at 10:30, and the five-mile walk/run that he, his four brothers and two sisters would make from home to school and back again. They didn’t have a school bus until the 1950s, he says, and by then, he was working in the orchards, earning 5 cents an hour lugging jugs of water to the workers—his parents and grandparents among them. Branch also remembers the nice bus driver, who always had a cigar in his mouth and didn’t tolerate roughhousing.

Bear Mountain Mission School, now on the National Register of Historic Places. Photo by Eze Amos

Wood, who has conducted extensive research on Monacan history, says that during this time, the county provided schools for white children and for black children, but not Indian children, and so Monacan children in Amherst County attended the Bear Mountain Mission School up until seventh grade. If they wanted more schooling they had to go elsewhere—to a reservation school in Oklahoma—an expense most parents, who worked low-paying orchard jobs, couldn’t afford.

Monacan children started attending public schools in 1963, nearly a decade after Brown v. Board of Education ended legal segregation in U.S. public schools in 1954.

As Branch talks about his childhood in Amherst County, he doesn’t focus much on what his family didn’t have, though it’s clear they didn’t have much. He remembers picking up their ration of flour and visiting the man who ground cornmeal for them; every member of the family got one pair of shoes a year. Branch’s family raised their own chickens and hogs and hunted rabbits and squirrels, which were easy to chase into tree trunk holes and skewer with a sharpened stick. He helped out in the orchards and in the corn and tobacco fields during harvest time.

As an adult, Branch drove a tractor trailer for 45 years; his wife stayed home with their kids as he traveled around the country for weeks at a time. He has fond memories of the road, too, where people showed him immense kindness, sharing meals and conversation during what were often lonely trips. He worries that there’s too much hatred in the world today—“Hatred don’t get you anywhere,” he says over and over. “That’s behind us. We don’t need that anymore.”

Branch’s generation had it “real bad,” says Dean Branham—because of discrimination against Indian people, and because they didn’t have access to education beyond seventh grade, it was hard for the Monacan people to get “public jobs.” So they worked long, hard hours in the orchards, where there were three separate lunch tables—one for whites, one for blacks, one for Indians. While Branch says “we’ve been down a hard road,” that’s about as much as he’ll say in that direction. It’s important to hear those stories, hear what older generations experienced, but many of those folks prefer not to relive those memories of being treated poorly because of their Indian heritage, Branham says.

Branham and Pamela Thompson, Monacan Indian Nation assistant chief, are more willing to share. Branham and Thompson’s parents attended the Bear Mountain Indian Mission School, but they themselves missed it by a few years. Growing up the 1960s and ’70s, they weren’t invited to their classmates’ homes after school and often rode the school bus standing because other children didn’t want to sit next to them. Branham was called a “half breed” and “everything but a child of God.” Oftentimes, other kids would ask, “You’re not white, you’re not black. What are you?” showing just how pervasive Plecker’s two-races ideology really was. Branham says that his high school girlfriend’s parents forbade her to date Indians, so she had to sneak out for her dates with Branham.

Even still, in certain places in Amherst County, “when you tell [someone] your name and who you are, you can tell by the look on [their] face, you can sense it,” how they feel about you, Branham says.

Education and acknowledgment

There are many ways in which American Indian identity is diminished, even denied, in present-day society. Look no further than what Karenne Wood, an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation, calls the “Pocahotness” Halloween costume; the feathered headdresses worn by non-Indian people to music festival Coachella and the ubiquitous elementary school Thanksgiving play that oversimplifies the interaction between colonists and American Indian people.

“We have been categorized as people of the past,” says Wood, pointing out that in school textbooks, American Indians are often written about in the past tense: They lived in this type of house; they ate squash and corn; they wore feathers.

It’s important that while telling the story of Virginia Indians past, the textbooks also tell the story of Virginia Indians present and future, and for Wood, director of Virginia Indian Programs at Virginia Humanities who sat on the Virginia Department of Education Standards of Learning committee in 2008, that means working with textbook writers to tell a fuller—not just colonist—history of Virginia Indians. It means including in these textbooks photos of Indian kids holding cell phones to show that “we have adapted to live in this century along with everybody else,” she says.

It means challenging the pervasive stereotype of Indians portrayed as savages, with bloody tomahawks in their hands, when the colonizers—who were just as, if not more, violent—are depicted as valiant and brave. Wood takes issue with the fact that there are so few representations of American Indian people in Charlottesville, and the ones that exist perpetuate the image of the triumphant colonist and either the passive or savage Indian.

There’s Sacagawea, crouching passively beneath Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on West Main Street—Sacagawea, a Lemhi Shoshone woman who helped guide Lewis and Clark’s expedition west, should be pointing the way, Wood says. Then there are the Indians who are moments away from being either trampled by George Rogers Clark’s horse or shot to death by Clark’s men, in the “Conqueror of the Northwest” statue on the UVA Corner.

Note that these two statues were given as a gift to the city in the early 1920s—around the time the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 became law in Virginia—by Paul Goodloe McIntire along with two other statues: the Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson statues in Emancipation and Justice parks.

Wood is happy to see more and more people taking steps toward acknowledging the history of American Indians, particularly the Monacan Indian Nation, in and around Charlottesville. The city celebrated its first Indigenous Peoples Day in lieu of Columbus Day in October 2017, and the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Museum begins all of its public programs—gallery tours, lectures, workshops—with an acknowledgment of the Monacan people as traditional custodians of the land. Similarly, Wood and other members of the tribe were asked to be present for UVA’s bicentennial celebration in fall 2017, where Wood opened the celebration with a traditional Monacan welcome.

“Making that awareness is so important,” says Wood. “We have thousands of years of relationship with this place, and have developed an intimate knowledge of, and love for, homeland. We know it, and we say, ‘it is us.’ The land doesn’t belong to us; it is absolutely reversed—we are part of the land, and we belong in this place.”

Thompson, who works as an office manager, says that as an adult, she’s had complete strangers at powwows walk up to her while she’s dressed in her regalia and tell her, “you ain’t no Indian,” before asking her to prove her heritage.

Branham has experienced the same. A woman came up to him at a powwow, looking for the chief. “I am the chief,” Branham told her. “You don’t look like the chief,” the woman replied. It’s a strange paradox, being expected by some to prove an identity that others have altogether denied you.

The tribe offers frequent cultural education classes to enrolled members of all ages, usually on the Bear Mountain land (which, it’s important to note, is not a reservation). One tribe member teaches basket weaving while another keeps a garden with native seeds; others teach beadwork or drumming. Thompson’s 23-year-old son, Quentin Talbott, loves sharing his passion for Monacan dance with younger generations, teaching them to love their heritage as much as he does. Although he’s danced at powwows and ceremonies, even Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s inauguration in January 2018, nothing is more important to him than passing on the dance to younger members of the Monacan Indian Nation. “My heritage is everything to me,” says Talbott.

Branham and Thompson agree that attitudes toward Indians have changed over time, and that their children have it very different—they’re invited to speak about their heritage at their schools; they have public jobs; they go on to college, move out of the Amherst County and share Monacan history, traditions and culture with others.

“We’re not asking for sympathy; we’re not asking people to feel sorry for us,” Branham adds. He just wants people to know: “That’s what we went through. And we survived.”

The long road to federal recognition

On January 11, Branham drove to Richmond and met up with the chiefs of five other Virginia Indian tribes—the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi and Nansemond—for the drive to Washington, D.C., to sit in the Senate gallery to hear the vote on H.R. 984, or, the Thomasina E. Jordan Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017, which passed the House of Representatives in May 2017.

They’d done this before, many times: Representatives of these six tribes formed the advocacy group Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life (VITAL) in 1999 to advocate for federal acknowledgment through Congress rather than the Indian Affairs of the Department of the Interior’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment via the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Usually, tribes go through the process via the BIA; this is how Virginia’s Pamunkey Tribe gained its federal recognition in July 2015. But the BIA recognition process, which requires extensive documentation, was not an option for these six tribes. The Monacan Indian Nation has a set of genealogical documents it uses to determine membership, but that wasn’t enough for the BIA. Wood worked for years compiling proper documentation for the Monacan tribe, and she says it was difficult for many reasons: because of how the Racial Integrity Act legally changed their Indian identity, because their people were not well-documented by colonists and because many of the courthouses and churches that held official records burned to the ground in the Civil War.

Karenne Wood, an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation and director of Virginia Indian Programs at Virginia Humanities, has spent the last 20 years researching, preserving and sharing Virginia Indian history. “For our people, what [federal recognition] truly means is more of a place of legitimacy, that we can actually say ‘Yes, we are Indians,’ we are not mongrels, which is what we’ve always been called, all these horrible labels that have been applied to us because people didn’t know who we were.” Photo by Jessica Elmendorf

Requesting recognition from Congress was, really, the only option. And so, at the urging of Thomasina E. Jordan, the American Indian activist and first American Indian member of the U.S. Electoral College for whom the bill is named, former Virginia representative Jim Moran introduced the bill in 2000.

More than twice, the bill passed the House and stalled in the Senate, when opponents of the bill rejected the idea that Congress should recognize the tribes when the BIA had already established an official federal recognition process.

But on January 11, Virginia Senators Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine forced a surprise vote on the bill by unanimous consent, with no guarantee it would pass. No senator objected.

All Branham remembers is that someone said “your bill has passed,” and they were ushered away from the Senate floor and into a hallway full of reporters with notepads and cameras. They posed for photos with Warner, Kaine and Representative Rob Wittman, who introduced the bill in the House in 2017. “I love ‘em to death,” Branham says of the three politicians. “They really worked hard, along with others who are no longer up there.”

Currently, there are more than 570 federally recognized tribes in the United States. Federally recognized tribes have a direct relationship with the United States government; they can apply for and access federal grants for housing, health care, senior care, education and economic development, among other things. Thompson hopes that the Monacan Indian Nation can get funds to upgrade (or perhaps relocate) the tribe’s office—where the computers run on Windows 98 and where, because of its location in the mountain, there is no internet connection—and upgrade the museum.

Federal recognition also means the tribes can repatriate the remains of their ancestors that have been stored and even displayed in the Smithsonian museum system. They “have our grandmothers in boxes,” says Wood. “Now we can bring them home, put them where they’re supposed to be, with us.”

On their way back down I-95 after the vote, the six chiefs made phone call after phone call to their tribal councils and tribe members.

When Branham called Thompson, she didn’t believe him at first. “You’re lying! You’re lying!” she said—Branham’s known to joke around. But he wasn’t lying, and he passed his phone to the other chiefs, who confirmed the news.

“It was six chiefs in a vehicle, and it was like a big smiley face going down the road,” Branham says. But it wasn’t over yet. President Trump had to sign the bill into law.

And he did, on January 29. Wood says she was “completely stunned.”

Branham was eating lunch when he got the call, and things have moved quickly since. It’s been so hectic, Branham says, that the news still hasn’t sunk in.

The tribe has already submitted its constitution and bylaws to the BIA, who will ultimately dole out any of the resources that the tribe gains through federal recognition. But federal recognition is not a cure-all balm for the wounds caused to the Monacan people and other Virginia Indians. The BIA, and especially its Indian Health Services, are notoriously under-funded. And there’s no telling what resources a tribe will actually receive (i.e., those for housing, health care, education, etc.). That’ll likely come a few years down the road.

As soon as Thompson heard the news, she thought of her late father, who served as assistant chief of the tribe years ago. “He didn’t get to see that,” she says, swallowing hard as her wedding ring twinkles in the museum’s fluorescent lights as she lifts her hand to catch the tears spilling from the corners of her blue eyes. “But I know he knows.”

Branch heard the news from his daughter, who had talked to Branham while Branch was out. Branch says he dropped his lunchbox and started crying. Crying for his brothers, who never lived to collect a Social Security check; for his parents who worked for pennies in the orchards; for all of the people buried in the Bear Mountain cemetery who were denied their Indian identity; for his ancestors who were chased off their land.

“My daddy used to tell us boys, ‘Just hang in there, don’t give up. Don’t let anybody run you off your land or [take] what you got. One of these days, it’s going to pay off,’” says Branch from the school desk, his voice catching as tears well up in his eyes in the shadow of his navy blue baseball cap, with “Native Pride” embroidered along the edge of the bill. He never thought he’d live to see federal recognition.

“That day I went up to D.C. and it [passed the Senate], I went up as a Monacan Indian, knowing who I was,” says Branham. “And federal recognition, whether I got it or not, I was still going to be a Monacan Indian.”

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