Trail Exposes Hidden History of Va. Indians
Saturday, June 23, 2007
Up a winding six miles of a narrow two-lane road just off Route 29 in Amherst County, the Monacan Nation lies tucked in a mountain hollow. It's not easy to find, this premiere destination along the new Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. And there's not a whole lot to see in the white vinyl-sided trailer that serves as the ancestral museum.
But in the remoteness of the location and the sparseness of the collection is the story of Virginia Indians that the trail is trying to tell.
The Monacan Indians were often referred to as a "lost" Virginia tribe. They say they were only able to survive as a nation hundreds of years after colonists thought they'd died out because they lived in the middle of nowhere. And now that the 400th anniversary of Jamestown has revived interest in Virginia Indian culture and Virginia Indians are desperate to let people know they're still around, they're finding that most have no idea who they are, where they are or how to find them.
Enter the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail guide, an 80-page book with photographs, a history of the eight state-recognized tribes, a calendar of events such as annual powwows and a list of 24 places in the state, including reservations and tribal centers, where the curious can learn more, or learn something.
"A lot of what's being read and written and exhibited about Virginia Indians suggests that their history stopped somewhere in the 1600s, that they're a people of the past," said David Bearinger of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, a state agency that provided much of the funding for the guidebook. "So the hope is that, a generation from now, people will know something about the cultures of Indian people living in the state and that their history won't be seen as marginal, but as part of the mainstream."
Such a reeducation, the tribes say, can only help six of the tribes, which are petitioning Congress to become federally recognized sovereign nations, such as the Navajo and Sioux. The bill passed the house last month and awaits action in the Senate.
To create the trail, researchers surveyed more than 100 museums and sites in the state and found only a handful they thought worth mentioning. Other displays used language that Virginia Indians found offensive. And some gift shops had stereotypical rubber tomahawks and feathered headdresses, which were worn by Western tribes on the Plains, hundreds of miles away.
"We got to laughing about the lithics and the lithics and the lithics," said Karenne Wood, an anthropologist, editor of the guidebook and a member of the Monacan Nation's Tribal Council, referring to an archaeological word for prehistoric stone tools. "We felt we really had to do this, because most of our history has been told so badly or so incompletely."
Still, the Indian trail is relatively spare, not like Virginia's popular Civil War trails, packed with more than 300 places to visit.
At the Monacan Ancestral Museum, there are displays of ancient stone tools and ceremonial multistem pipes. Two large faces, reconstructed from 900-year-old skulls, show what Monacan ancestors looked like. Historic panels telling the story of the tribe line the walls, and visitors can watch a video, "Reclaiming our History," about how an archaeologist and a local doctor helped forge the modern Monacan Nation out of the people in the area who called themselves the Amherst Indians, and if anything, thought they were Cherokee.
There is also an array of faded family snapshots and schoolbooks from the time when most Monacans went to the segregated one-room log schoolhouse, reconstructed next door. That era lasted until 1968. You can see Milton Johns's lunch pail from the time when most Monacans were tenant farmers in the nearby apple orchard, Homer Willis's corn-husking knife and the eyeglasses of Sarah and Ella Beverly.
You can buy a braid of sweetgrass for $5. Or a T-shirt that reads "1607-2007: We're Still Here." There are also beanie babies sitting atop a glass case of contemporary jewelry. And a sacred hoop depicting a Rocky Mountainesque scene. "That's why it's in the bathroom," Wood said matter-of-factly.