Balancing in nature community in the face of modern development - Extended Interview

Virginia is in a state of struggle between the past and present. Balance in nature and balance in community requires people of all backgrounds, ethnicities and tribes. There is so much in the balance and activists are stepping in to maintain that equilibrium.

Craig: Looks like we’re about to drown. So tell us where we’re headed right now.

Chief Brannon: Well, this is the location of the Monacan town of Rassaweck.  It’s surrounded by two major rivers here in the state of Virginia. The James River and the Rivanna River and are over here. And we’ve had a lot of rain the last two weeks, so the river’s quite high. This would be dry land. The point behind me would be where canoes and stuff would be landing. This was, we believe, one of our major trading cities. And I say cities, because there were probably several hundred people could actually lived here at any given time. And it was lived in by Monacan and people up to the 1730. John Smith This is it and it’s documented it ever since 1607. So, you know, this is not something that just popped up two years ago?

Craig: And you’re the chief of the Monacan tribe.

Chief Brannon: Yes, sir. I’ve been chief almost 18 years now, not continuously, but 16 years. And then I had a little break and right now I’m back.

Earl: That’s how I talk about my marriage. I was married 18 years, but over two different periods.

Chief Brannon: Well, you know, the Monacans today there are over 2,500 of us in the tribe and our headquarters over in Amherst. So this was one of the major cities, major trading posts. It’s something that, you know, we really hadn’t been coming here simply because it’s nothing here other than our ancestor remains and things like that. We didn’t want people coming in here looting.

Earl: For artifacts or.

Chief Brannon: Artifacts, human remains, you know, all those type things. It sounds kind of cruel when you say it, but those things do happen. So, you know, we were very particular about talking about any of our sacred sites. And, we say sacred because our ancestors did live here. We got to preserve the spot. And, we believe that if we can’t protect a spot, there is no place in Virginia safe.

Earl: You guys have existed as a nation continuously, right? It’s not like it came and went or whatever. I mean, you guys were always here. And it wasn’t that long ago, you know, decades ago. But then the state recognized the tribe. Is that correct? What’s the process to go from state recognition to federal recognition?

Chief Brannon: State recognition, you’re working with your state politicians and it takes a while. There were at that time eight tribes. Now there are 11. Three more has been added on. But the eight tribes, seven Powhatan tribes, the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi, Rappahannock and the Monacan. And a lot was known about those tribes because that’s where the Europeans landed. The answer to that was to retreat the four lines of the the James River. Here was our boundary with the Powhatan  Indians. So we moved back as the European population grew. And so we ended up over in Amherst County.

Earl: So talk a little bit about yeah, because I kind of get that it’s a state thing when it’s a state recognition, but it’s a harder thing to get to a federal recognition that’s bestowed, I guess, there on the BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs. What’s so hard about it?

Chief Brannon: This this is Greg and his wife started helping us with this. And without them, we wouldn’t be here today. They probably already have a building up and decimated the whole site. But with him and his wife and their firm has really helped us to preserve this piece of property. And it’s the history of the Monacan , but it’s also the history of Virginia. And a lot of the local landowners are backing us, even though they need the water, they know this is not the place to put the pumps.

Earl: So, Greg, to be clear, you’re actually an attorney in your role. There’s a legal component to this. Yeah. But so this formal process to get some recognition. Why is it hard?

Greg W.: Well, the tribe and most of the other tribes in Virginia were recognized by an act of Congress for federal recognition in 2018. We didn’t represent them then. They called us not long after that because they heard that there was a planned water pump station in the middle of Rassaweck, which is their historic capital. And we know from studies from the Smithsonian all the way back to the 1880s, and the documentation the chief mentioned about Captain John Smith back to 1612, that this was a major village and we know because of prior floods that there are a great number of Monacans buried here because those burials have in the past been exposed both through floods and because there was a gas line put in down the road not long ago. So the tribe called, my wife and I. We run a law firm called Cultural Heritage Partners, and our specialty is trying to help our clients strike the right balance between and society.  Strike the right balance between historic preservation and development. Mm hmm. And unfortunately, the tribe had been lied to about whether or not there were viable alternatives. No, people were lying. I know. It’s shocking. It’s. It’s it’s shocking. Tribes have been lied to. As everyone who’s watching this knows for 400 years. But we live in a modern age now where you can do things like submit Freedom of Information Act requests. And when we did that, we found a ton of documents that showed that the proponents of this project have 13 or 14 other options in which to draw water from the James to fund development. The tribe is not anti- “people getting water”, the tribe is not anti-development. The tribe is just anti-development at the cost of digging up their ancestors and destroying the archaeological record.

Earl: That seems easy… it’s just the morality? You know, like, why would you not? You don’t have build here.  You can build somewhere else. You don’t have to plead with me not to screw up some money. It’s all about…

Craig: Money.

Greg W.: Money’s an issue. And I’ll tell you thatt he reason that this is connected to federal recognition is that federal recognition does come with a lot of potential political muscle. And for the first time, these tribes, which are some of the best documented tribes in the whole country, but are some of the latest recognized, are stepping forward and saying, look, there’s been 400 years of you not having to pay attention to us because we had no seat at the table. We now have a seat at the table. We’re going to exercise that power and attempt to preserve this site. So it’s not just the Monacan and it’s the other tribes in Virginia that are standing behind the Monacan  and saying, not this. I’ll just say this to put it in context that a lot of white people who love history can understand. Jamestown was smaller than this. This lasted many, many centuries, more than Jamestown did. And yet we have been excavating Jamestown carefully for over 80 years. The plan here is to spend three months digging up the chief’s ancestors, putting them, if you’ll excuse me for saying this, in cardboard boxes, letting the chief do what he wants with them, and then putting a pump station in. And for 400 years, that was acceptable in Virginia. It was acceptable in most states in the country. So the surprise that you express about how awful this is is relatively late. If we were having this conversation 25 years ago, it never would have been a conversation. They would not have had any seat at the table. That’s different now.

Chief Brannon: And some of these laws were just passed in the 1990.

Earl: Not 1890s.

Chief Brannon: I mean, we’re protecting graves of native people. And, you know, I always say to people that has a problem with, you know, stopping something because there might be graves are where would you want your great grandparents dug up and removed and disturbed? You know? I went through that one time with a site that was dug up in the 1907, I think it was Valentine, and it was over 150 skeletons, full skeletons. It was a major burial site and it took us oh, we didn’t get those remains back until the 1990, and they lost 20 complete skeletons. People, you know, probably walking around with a piece in the pocket, there’s a lucky charm or something like that. And once we got them, we had a mass reburial, right?

And that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. We had them in our tribal hall and we had six people come down and we wrapped them in red cloth and put an eagle feather in and we went in and it was like it was just sucking the life out of we couldn’t stay. And over 30 minutes we have to come out and get some help and you know plan of when air but it just the deed of what we were doing and we reburied those on our tribal lands and you know I don’t want to go through that again. I don’t know if I. It really, because it took such a toll. And you know what?

Earl: What are we preserving if we preserve some of the tribe? I mean, what was the Monacan nation like or the tribe like? And what are some of the characteristics? How would people identify, who they were and what they were?

Greg W.: All handsome, right?

Earl: More handsome than you?

Chief Brannon: I’ll let that slide. We spoke the Siouan Dialect and James River was our boundary with the Powhatan tribe on the coast. And we had people in our tribe that had prophesied there would come a people from ‘neath the world to take our world away. And that was our way. We looked at the Europeans, those they were the people. And if you think about it… Truer words have never been spoken. Yes, there were fights and saying we even fought the Pamunkey Indians. They sided with the Europeans, we defeated them. But it was a case you won the battle but lost the war. And of course, after that, we were never really able to mount an offense, more defensive type thing. And, you know, back then, the tribes estimated between ten and 15,000, which was a pretty good sized tribe. And we were very capable of protecting our territory. So that’s why the Europeans didn’t come into our territory, because the Powhatan Indians would not lead expeditions into our territory. And, you know, so that was the reason. And we didn’t want to be socialized with that. We traded with all the Indians. They the Powhatan the Cherokees of the South got European goods. But, you know, it’s not we didn’t run up and welcome them. And, you know, I joke with the other chiefs, I always tell them, you let them on shore, you know, this is your fault.

Earl: Now we got to clean it up.

Craig: You sound like a Virginian. You look like, you know, a Virginian. And in that sense, a Caucasian. Like, what do you say to people…

Chief Brannon: Well, you got to remember, we’ve been in contact with European people, English particular for over 400 years. We have intermarried. You know, my first wife was Monacan, but she looked a whole lot like I because her grandparents and and, you know, interact married. But, you know, we’ve always held on to that Indian part of us. I grew up very poor. I never had a house with running water in till I was 23 and got married and and bought a house I’m living in today, you know, woodstoves and stuff like that. One light and another in a room where you pull a string to put the light on. But we didn’t know it because we were always loved, we were always fed, we always had clean clothes. I wasn’t allowed in the public schools in our county until 1963. I went in the fourth grade when I went into what.

Earl: Was so what happened right around that time? What changed right around the time?

Chief Brannon: It was sort of like the civil rights movement, but it was more Indian than anything else. And the deacons at our church was the leaders in getting us into public schools. See, the problem with the schools wasn’t teachers. They were great. But seventh grade, it was it weren’t allowed in the public high schools. White or black… And so you went out, you got a job. You know, if you want to keep the people down, you keep them uneducated. And that’s what was happening. My father worked in Apple Orchard his whole life, and he was killed in a farming accident when I was senior in high school. And his dream was that myself and my three sisters would graduate from high school. Not a big dream.

Earl: Doesn’t seem like too much to ask now from peoples that have been here from the very beginning.

Chief Brannon: Beginning that was, you know, up here, he he was a veteran Indian. People love this country. We just have a problem with the government. A lot of times.

Greg W.: Native Americans serve in all branches of the military at a higher rate per capita than any other race of people in this country and have throughout throughout all the wars. So, you know, there’s there’s consistently a theme of Native Americans versus the federal government. But Native Americans have stood up and been the American part, and they have struggled in places like Virginia to keep the native part because it was it was official state policy. In Virginia and all along the East Coast to eliminate the very culture that keeps people together. And to do things like change birth certificates, right. To make it impossible to eventually prove your affiliation.

Chief Brannon: And if you look at the history of Virginia in the 1920s, they passed laws, racial integrity laws, and it was based on eugenics, which is a pseudo science, a false science.  Basically stated there was two races in Virginia, White and everybody else. And, you know, we had midwives.

My grandmother was one. She delivered 100 over 140 Monacan babies. And she put “Indian” on every single one of them. And they sent a letter from Richmond and State, told her to cease doing that. And she looked at it and read it and showed it to my grandfather, who was the last non elected chief. And he looked at it and laughed and she ripped it up to the fireplace and she said, If they want to stop me, come and get me. Of course it never happened. It would have been an uprising in Amherst County. Nobody is born a racist. And, you know, we made friends real quick. You know, first two weeks, they would get off the bus. We build up playing kickball. Hey, Bill, come on, play with us. Sue you over there, you know, and everybody got along good. And then I’ll never forget it was like it happened last month. Came in school one Monday, we wrote a play in the bus stop. They got off and they walked up to the base line and just watched. And we were. Come on. You over here. You over there. And they just knocked the heads. And at lunchtime I asked one of the boys, I said, What’s wrong with y’all? Have we done something to y’all, you know, what’s going on? And his exact words was Kenneth. My mom and dad went to a meeting at the church. The church at Elon on this little place where we were going to go yesterday. And when they came back, they had a talk with me and my sister said, We are not to play with you, that you’re not the kind of people we need to play with. That’s when, you know, things sort of really changed for the worse when it came to schools. Now, when I went in as a third grader, there were 30 kids that were in grades higher than me. Mm hmm. One one made it through high school, and in 1971, he graduated. The following year, myself and two others graduated from Mama’s high school. And, you know, I was good in sports. I loved sports and football wrestling.

Chief Brannon: And I was team captain my senior year. I played baseball and I got a wrestling scholarship. But, you know, life has its own plan sometimes. My dad was killed in May 5th of 72, a month before I graduated. And, uh,

Chief Brannon: I did go away for a year and came back, but I realized I’m the oldest only son, and I’ve got three younger sisters and my mom. I realized she needed help to get them girls through high school. Mm hmm. Now, it was in August. I always think about when all of us get here. We were in the kitchen talking, and she’s had a back to me, and we’re doing something right. And she says, Son, and it’s time for you to get ready to go back to school. And I said, Mom, I’ve thought about it. I prayed about it. I’m not going back. I’ll help you get my sisters through high school. That was Daddy’s dream, and I will help you with that. Dead silence. I turned around. You look at me. I get emotional when I talk about it…. Tears running down her face. And I went over and I hugged her and I said, Mom, everything’s going to be okay. And her exact words were… “it will be now”. And when she said the word, “now”, I knew she needed the help, but she would have never asked me. She would never ask me to give that up. But, you know, I did what I had to do at the time. And I never regret it because I’ve lived a good life. And if I went to school 4 years, I don’t know if I’d be here today. I definitely wouldn’t have met my second wife, who was the love of my life.

Earl: So there’s a lot going on now in our country where we’re talking about racial reconciliation. And there’s very little, I think, mentioned about the Native American tribes, the first tribes, the people that have been here for a very long time. Well, how do you guys see it? How do you see this awakening that seems to be happening? How does it impact? Is there any good that overflow?

Chief Brannon: The dominant society, “the whites” always said, call us. Black, half breed, stuff like that. So we didn’t associate with blacks a whole lot because you they would look at where say we told you that you’re socialized with them so you want to. So we their way. And, you know, it was a situation where it was us against the world. I look at it now, and I got a lot of black friends. Some of my best friends. I will step on some poles now, but we got a president that, in my opinion, is very racist. When it comes from the top, it sort of lets everybody else think it’s okay to do it. We have members that have married blacks. And, you know, they have kids, but they are munchkin kids and a lot of people.

Greg W.: The awakening in the country over the past decade, while there has certainly been a focus on black/white relations, the Dakota Access Project, and the fact that the federal government sent out fire hoses to to deal with protesters out there. Is one example, of a number of examples where I think there’s an increasing awareness. What we’ve been surprised about is, you know, in this fight to preserve this property, there were 12,000 people in organizations that wrote to the Army Corps of Engineers saying, “no, this isn’t this is not right. This is too much.” The vast majority of them were not native. They were white. And so I take that and they’re from rural areas.

Chief Brannon: A lot of them right here.

Greg W.: Yeah, a lot of them right here. So I think there’s an awareness that some things are just so fundamentally wrong and we’ve gotten them so wrong in this country that that it almost crosses the political and partisan divide where.  I was talking earlier, one of the private property owners here, part of Rassaweck, and I couldn’t be more politically opposed, but we’re united on one thing, which is this is not an appropriate way to advance local development at the cost of evidence of what was a dominant civilization in your your state for a long time. And most Virginians know virtually nothing about American Indian history. It’s sites like this that when preserved and over time, you have a plan to interpret that closes the gap in understanding. And it’s only through education by bringing people out and showing them hands on where people lived and how they live, that you’re going to close the discrimination gap.

Earl: And it’s hard it’s kind of hard to do that, right? To really get people very familiar with the tribe, because a lot of your tribes are your own your own rituals. Right. And your areas or your areas. And last thing you want is a bunch of, you know, tourist buses or good intentioned people tramping all over your properties.

Chief Brannon: We have a Pow Wow every year. We’ve been doing it for 28 years. This is the first year in 28 years. We didn’t do it because the epidemic its own, we don’t own the property. But a local farmer here that we were looking for a place and he was talking to us about something else we were doing and he said, Hey, have you checked my place out? And we’ve been doing it ever since. The first four or five years he didn’t charge us anything, but he got six brothers and and sisters. So they got into the picture and they wanted some money. So we started giving them a little, you know, money each year. But we we are spend it all over about 20 different states in Virginia, probably a thousand of us. But, you know, it’s one time of year where we can all get together and celebrate connecting again as family members. And we also teach in our young people and we teach in the community, because it’s open to the community, some of the things we believe in. And, you know, I tell people, yeah, you look at me, you look at a lot of the Monacans. We could blend in with most any other group. We don’t walk around with signs on our backs and a Monacan and but we’re proud of that fact. And, you know, my grandmother I asked her one time, how come she didn’t teach me more about being a Monacan ? And as I was growing up and she said, son, if the wrong person would have heard me talking about being an Indian, we might not have had a place to live tomorrow. And, you know, and she said with tears in her eyes. But, you know, she she lived long enough to see the first five of our pow ,wows and she loved them.  And the last one she came to, she she was she was sick. And my mom and I went up to the house and she said, Kenneth.” Don’t be talking to Grandma about pow wow”. I swear I won’t unless you bring it up, you know, across all branches or say I was her favorite. But she’d wink and say, No, you ain’t. But, you know, soon as we’re walking home, sun has power because about two weeks of high power go. And y’all ready for this? And I looked at Mom. I said, Yeah, Grandma, we’re pretty pretty much ready.  Well, she said, Now, I sure would like to go. I said, Grandma, do you really want to go? And she said, You know what? I said, If you’re able, I’ll come and pick you up and carry you over there myself. And she said, “It’s a date”. And, you know, my mom looked at me, you know, she didn’t appreciate it too much, but, hey, I was my grandma. And she went she sat in a chair and it’s like a light was all over her, you know, when she watched it, because she told me one time, you know, we couldn’t do this when I was growing up. I couldn’t either until, you know, the pow wow. I was in my late twenties when we started.

Craig: What did the river mean specifically to the Monacan?

Chief Brannon: And well, think about it. We had no horses, travel, food, life itself now. And every just about every village, not just Monacans, but Indians all over the country always have water close by. You know, it gives you life and food. The thing is necessary.

Craig: And is there a spiritual component to it?

Chief Brannon: That as well? You know, being part of nature, we always try to leave a place better than what we found it. And that’s why we were able to have the pow wow for 27 years in the same place, because we always left it better than we found. You know, I read where John Smith would leave an expedition up the drain rover and was getting close to dark and he hadn’t stopped the hadn’t hunted. So they took a basket and just scooped it through the water. They got enough fish to feed 12 people by just scoping it.

Craig: Well got to one point where you you Fred to eat anything out of the giant.

Craig: Yeah.

Craig: Because of pollution. Yeah. Progress, but at a heck of a price. I’m right. So, you know, we always try to live with nature and. And respect it.

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