Encounter: The Monacan Today
In this report by Martha Woodroof, Monacan chief Kenneth Branham and assistant chief George Whitewolf, who died in 2010, along with Quinten Talbott, a youth dancer, talk about Monacan history and culture. This is one of five separate features, produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, that aired in May 2007 and explored the lives of contemporary Virginia Indians.
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Lydia Wilson: To grow a nation, it often means acknowledging wounds of the past in order to move forward and heal. In Virginia’s recent past Virginia Indians could not call themselves Indian without fear of retaliation because of a law called the Racial Integrity Act. Today, less than forty years after the law was overturned, Amherst County’s Monacan Indian Nation encourages Monacans of all ages to gather twice a week to learn more about their culture from elders. Martha Woodroof reports.
Woodroof: Walter Ashby Plecker, as Virginia’s Registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 until 1945 controlled the state’s birth, marriage, and death statistics. Plecker was an avowed white supremacist and a staunch advocate of the eugenics movement, or the pseudo-science of race. Monacan chief Kenneth Branham says Plecker saw Virginians as whites and non-whites.
Branham: There were laws passed in Virginia, the Racial Integrity law of 1924, that basically stated that in the state of Virginia you were either white or colored, it was the word then. It was against the law to state that you were Indian.
Woodroof: Branham says Walter Plecker had enough power to effectively commit paper genocide of Virginia Indians, including the Monacans.
Branham: Walter Plecker, in the 1930s when they were trying to organize the tribes across the country, wrote to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that there were no Indians left in Virginia. He was systematically changing records to erase that designation of Indian people.
Woodroof: Throughout this, Chief Branham says, Monacans never lost sight of who they are.
Branham: Although we couldn’t go around talking about it because of the backlash, we’ve always known we were Indian and very proud of the fact.
Woodroof: In 1989, the Monacan tribe was finally recognized by the Virginia General Assembly. Their birth certificates were legally corrected in 1995, but for today’s Monacans the strength of their cultural identity comes as always from Amherst County’s Bear Mountain.
Whitewolf: The mountain is our spiritual center, it is where God lives for us and the Creator told us a long time ago, "You come here and I’ll take care of you."
Woodroof: Assistant Chief George Whitewolf sits outside at the Monacan Cultural Center, a cluster of small buildings crowding the banks of a fast-running woodland stream. Densely forested slopes of Bear Mountain hover behind him.
Whitewolf: We was coming down that road tonight, me and Tyler, and we come over this rise and I said to Tyler in the truck, "Tyler, look at that, that’s your mother right there." That’s Bear Mountain.
Woodroof: George Whitewolf and twelve year-old Tyler Parker have driven here for culture class. Held twice a week, it gives elders the opportunity to pass tribal traditions, stories and practical knowledge onto the next generation of Monacans.
Whitewolf: We are really a Woodland Indian, along the coast are fisher people and they live quite a bit different than we did and they live quite a bit different than we still do even now. We still eat a tremendous amount of wild vegetables, wild plants, wild animals, wild food.
Woodroof: Inside, as class begins, twelve year-old Quinten Talbot proudly dons his traditional Monacan regalia. He’s made his own moccasins, breechcloth, and leggings but the fantastic, fan-shaped, fur creation on his head was passed down to him by his brother. [To Talbot] When you outgrow these, what will you do with them?
Talbot: Pass them down to the younger people. It’s a tradition to pass this stuff down, it’s like your honoring the other ones with your stuff.
Woodroof: Pam Talbot is Quinten’s mother. She says she wants her son to grow up knowing the proud heritage of his tribe, something she herself didn’t grasp until recently. For VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, I’m Martha Woodroof.