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New law creates fund for Indigenous land protection

historical marker next to sign
The Monacan Indian Museum sits in an old school building, which educated Monacan students barred from segregated public schools. (Photo: Angie Miles/VPM News)

Point of Fork, Virginia, is a place in Fluvanna County where a river separates or where two rivers come together, depending on your point of view. It’s the site of a noted Revolutionary War skirmish. And it’s also the setting for a present-day battle of wills.  

Point of Fork is known to the Monacan Nation as Rassawek. It is where Captain John Smith documented the Monacan people in 1607 and was the Monacan capital for hundreds, or perhaps even thousands, of years. Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham speaks passionately about the preservation of Rassawek. “I feel like if we can't protect that site, there's no site in Virginia that we'd be able to protect because of the significance to us.”

Over the past several years, the Monacans have fought to protect Rassawek from a planned water treatment facility. Chief Branham says he and other Tribal members have no objection to the project, but “there are other places along the James River that’s just as good, if not better, to put pump stations than on a sacred piece of property that may have ancestors’ remains there. You know, the sacredness of that, you know, you wouldn't destroy a large cemetery, just to put a pump station when you can go a half mile down the road and put it up.”

Person speaking
Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham. (Courtesy of Zachary Keifer)

The Monacans, different tribal nations and other people of color have more power behind their convictions, because of former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. In November 2021, Northam ordered that native tribes must have input before the state approves development projects or permits. Then, in a December 2021 executive order, Northam pledged 22 million dollars to Indigenous, Black and other citizens of color to protect, preserve or reacquire their culturally significant or sacred places in the Commonwealth. Northam explained his rationale this way in a January 5th 2022 interview with VPM News:

“Looking at the Native Americans, they were here long before people came from Europe. This was their land and that land was taken from them, and so I’ve always felt it was important to respond to their needs and requests. … And then also the history of slavery and Jim Crow and massive resistance and…mass incarceration in this country—all of these things are important to deal with.”

In the 2022 General Assembly session, several state lawmakers tried to codify the intent of Northam’s executive orders into law. Delegate Delores McQuinn (D-Richmond) introduced HB141, and Sen. Ghazala Hashmi (D-Chesterfield) championed SB158. Both pieces of legislation called for grant funding for Black, Indigenous and People of Color in Virginia to secure or to acquire culturally significant or sacred properties. Both bills passed without difficulty and were signed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin. But neither has been awarded the full funding of $10 million requested.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) sponsored SB482, which would mandate consultation with Tribal Nations before the state issues land development permits. That measure failed to win approval in an Agriculture subcommittee and has been deferred to 2023. To date, Northam’s executive orders remain in effect, however, and Youngkin has not indicated he intends to rescind either. These legislative matters have drawn the attention of all of Virginia’s recognized tribes. 

In the case of the Monacans, the largest of the tribes, headquartered in Amherst County, the push to protect and preserve history and to honor Monacan ancestors has been ongoing. That push has included acquisition of culturally significant land. Years ago, the Monacans established a tribal complex on the site of the old Monacan school. The two-room schoolhouse now stands alongside a museum that helps recount the history of a proud and resilient people.

Lou Branham is curator of the museum, a keeper and teacher of the old ways. She pauses an impromptu lesson with her son, who’s working with eagle feathers on an article of regalia for an upcoming pow wow. Branham expertly directs a young graduate student who has come to the museum to do research. 

Branham says she is devoted to the ancestors, who are with her every day. “Even in the mornings when I come in, I still talk to everybody in this room. When I enter the door… the first person I speak to is Dana, who’s hanging right under the light switch, and then I flip on the lights back here and I say, ‘Hello, Phyllis! Hi Dina!’ And I speak to my dad. … A lot of these people…they’ve passed on, but it brings comfort to me.”

Two people working
Lou Branham and her son work with feathers. (Photo: Angie Miles/VPM News)

A tour of the museum includes culturally significant clothing, photographs of Tribal members past and present and finds from archaeological sites in central Virginia. Branham points to a glass case on the left, which holds pottery from archaeological digs in and around Fluvanna and Albemarle counties. Branham says, “Whenever I come in contact with anything that comes to the museum, I can physically touch and feel the spirit of whoever had it. It will bring tears to you. Sometimes items can talk to you.”

The complex has a meeting hall where social events and Tribal business has been conducted for years, except during the pandemic. A colorful, new playground stands in contrast to the old playthings, including antique and dented bats, stored a few yards away in the old, tribal school, with its 19th century desks and pot-bellied stove. Branham takes special delight in knowing that her own parents sat in these desks when they were small children, before Virginia allowed Native American children to attend public schools with whites. The connection of the present with the sacred past is evident throughout this place of Tribal importance.

This complex was just a start. A government CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) grant has allowed for the creation of a new, community center. It has offices, a meeting hall, a community food pantry and both a clinic and a senior center in the works. Tribal leadership say that this is primarily for Monacan people, but they insist that what benefits them also benefits the larger community, in terms of employment, direct services and cash infused into the local economy. 

Tribal administrator Adrian Compton points out that all that they have accomplished thus far has required land. “We've found that you can't do anything in a tribe without land. Land is the basis for everything. So to actually have funds to buy land that historically was occupied by the Monacan Tribe is a great step forward, and it’s terrific to get the support from the state government.”

Along with that support and funding, the Monacans have also acquired a 1300-acre tract they refer to as “the farm”, for which they paid more than $5 million. They have grand plans for this relatively undeveloped area that includes a lake and vistas that stretch towards the mountains. They are considering a subdivision with homes that will belong to the owners but on land that will remain under Tribal ownership. They may create a wedding venue or other rental businesses that will benefit not only tribal members but also others in the community. 

Monacan Development Director Herb Hicks is a former Tribal Council member who retired from a life in professional golf and returned home to Amherst. He is outspoken in his beliefs about the importance of hard work and the need to move on from the past. But he acknowledges what indigenous people have endured throughout the country. Hicks says, “I'm not bitter with the state of Virginia, and Amherst County. Well, I think it's been a long time coming. But not just for here in Amherst County and Virginia but all over the United States. We have more or less always been the underdog.”

Another of the elders, Daniel Boone Branham, also lived a full professional life outside of Virginia. In the early to mid-1900s, large numbers of Monacan people established enclaves in Johnson City, Tennessee, and in the Baltimore, Maryland area. This was during the Walter Plecker era, when Virginia’s first and longest-serving Registrar of Vital Statistics (from 1912-1946) was actively campaigning to reclassify all Native people as either Black or white, forcing them to deny their Native heritage on all official documents. Plecker’s impact on the records of Virginia’s indigenous people is one reason it took until 2018 for most of Virginia’s tribes to receive federal recognition and the accompanying financial benefits. 

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Monacan elder Daniel Boone Branham. (Courtesy of Zachary Keifer)

During the Plecker years, Branham’s family was among those who went north. He has recently returned to Amherst, after successfully operating a trucking company for decades. In explaining why the current push to give Native people greater agency concerning land ownership is of such great consequence, Branham shares some of his history. “I was born on a tobacco plantation in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in a little town called Mitchellville. … Well, the older people that came through in the migration were always talking about the hunting and fishing they did. You know, they basically lived off the land. And they were proud of their land. Of course, they got run off of it.”

Branham talks about the many ways Native American people were deprived of their identity and their property – from Colonial times, through the forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, to more modern oppression under leaders like Walter Plecker. He describes Virginia-born Monacan men who had been accustomed to hunting for game, growing fresh vegetables and working with their hands having to adapt to a land-less way of life up north. These men worked with heavy machinery in factories and performed other, back-breaking manual labor. He speaks of their struggles, illnesses and sometimes their early deaths. He says, “But they wanted to come back to their land…what was taken from them.”

As an Elder who is nearing his 90th year, Branham says he sees things are beginning to change in ways that he finds encouraging. Speaking of the latest efforts by government and civic entities, he says, “I think it’s good, because they’re trying to help the Native people come into being self-sufficient. And it’ll take years and it has been years.”

One apparent victory for the Monacan Tribe came courtesy the James River Water Authority. In March, the Authority announced that it will abandon plans for a water treatment facility at Rassawek, the former Monacan capital Chief Kenneth Branham calls the most significant place for the Monacan people. Instead, the Authority is considering another site for its pump station to serve the water needs of Fluvanna and Louisa counties. Virginia’s Rappahannock Tribe celebrated a similar triumph on April 1, with the announcement that 465 acres of their Northern Neck ancestral land at Fones Cliffs has been reacquired and will be used for natural conservation and public education.

While Monacan elders say they don’t feel entitled to anything and they don’t expect handouts, they also speak honestly about what has happened to their ancestors. Chief Branham says there is a special relationship between all of Virginia’s Tribal Nations and the land that has been sacred to them, sometimes for centuries. He says, “The Monacans, along with other Indian tribes in Virginia, for years have had a real hard battle protecting some of the sites that we know… 500 years ago was very important to our people…and once you lose that piece of property or it’s developed, what it really stood for years ago is no longer there. So it’s very important, not just for Native people, but people of other colors and other races, to maintain this history. It’s not only our history, but it’s the history of all Virginians.”

Chief Branham reiterates that for Native people, the land they inhabited was a gift from the Creator— that they believed they were called upon to care for the land, which would in turn, care for them. He says their land loss did not occur through purchase or other legal means – it was taken. The recent corrections for past wrongs are, in fact, long overdue, according to Chief Branham, who says the efforts are “better late than never”. He and other elders say they welcome opportunities for the state’s leaders and laws to restore some of what was taken.