Nov. 7-20, 2003
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Setting Monacan history straight
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Setting Monacan history straight

Panelists spoke at a public lecture on Monacan culture and life in the Dome Room Oct. 23. The speakers were (right, top to bottom): Jeff Hantman of U.Va., and Monacan leaders Karenne Wood, Daniel Red Elk Gear and tribal Chief Kenneth Branham.

By Fariss Samarrai

Some sat with their eyes closed. Others watched transfixed. But all listened intently as Daniel Red Elk Gear, a leader of the Monacan Indian Nation, sang an ancient honor song to a full house of guests during the Oct. 23 “Engaging the Mind” program in the Dome Room of the Rotunda.

His song was followed by an ancient Monacan peace prayer — first in Tutelo, the language of the Monacans, then in English — by Karenne Wood, a Monacan leader and a poet.

For more than two hours the Monacan members, along with their tribal Chief Kenneth Branham, and U.Va. anthropologist Jeff Hantman, discussed Monacan culture and life, and the ways that the Monacan nation and U.Va. are working together to accurately and fully tell the history of the Monacan people.

The song and prayer that began the program were given and received in an appropriate location — Jefferson’s University occupies ancient Monacan land. All of central and western Virginia, from present-day Richmond to the Blue Ridge Mountains, was Monacan country until the westward expansion of European colonists in the early 17th century. In ensuing years, the Monacans and their culture were suppressed.

“We need to write Monacan history into its rightful place in the history of this region,” Hantman said prior to the program. During the discussion he said that the Monacan nation is “part of the ongoing story and history” of Virginia and the nation.

Today, the Monacan Indian Nation is revitalized, and reconstructing its history and culture with the help of Hantman and the U.Va. anthropology department.

There are more than 1,400 members of the tribe, which is recognized by Virginia but not the federal government. Such recognition would make members eligible for federal grants, housing, scholarships and loans, and allow for the repatriation of human remains and artifacts.
The Monacan Indian Nation is headquartered on ancestral lands in Amherst County, and its members are seeking to restore their traditional rituals and language. U.Va. archaeologists and the Monacan people are excavating and reconstructing ancient Monacan sites.

“We want to express the whole of Monacan culture and to reconstruct aspects that have been lost,” said Wood, who is a Monacan historian and repatriation coordinator with the Association on American Indian Affairs, as well as an award-winning poet. Hantman has been working with the Monacan people for more than 13 years on several projects, from archaeological surveys and excavations to developing a traveling exhibit. “I certainly have learned as much as I have taught,” he said.

Last year the University joined a major telescope consortium in Arizona located at a site considered sacred to the Apache peoples. To show respect for native peoples who were opposed to the University’s desire to join the telescope project, U.Va. agreed to develop an outreach collaboration in Arizona with the San Carlos Indian nations and two partner institutions — the University of Arizona and the University of Minnesota. U.Va. also resolved to build collaborative relationships with Virginia Indian nations. The University began conversations with Virginia tribes last spring and the “Engaging the Mind” panel discussion is one of several projects that have begun taking shape since last spring.

“One of our goals is to increase awareness of Native American issues and cultures on Grounds,” said Gene D. Block, vice president and provost, before the event. “This event helps us make progress toward that goal. We are deeply grateful to the leaders of the Monacan Nation for accepting our invitation to speak with us.” Block presented the Monacan members two 1914 photographs of Monacan children and a school from University archives.

U.Va.’s free public lecture series, “Engaging the Mind,” now in its third year, is coordinated by U.Va.’s Office of the Vice President and Provost and sponsored by Virginia National Bank. This academic outreach program hosts U.Va. faculty members in communities across the state.

The series creates opportunities for the University’s top scholars and teachers to engage with the citizens of Virginia and to extend the intellectual life of a nationally ranked research university.


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