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Years-long battle over sacred Monacan site ends in preservation

A historical marker for Rassawek erected by Virginia.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Radio IQ
A historical marker for Rassawek erected by Virginia.

Members of the Monacan Indian Nation declared victory Wednesday in a years-long battle to prevent construction on a sacred spot along the James River. Local officials have agreed to an alternative path for a water pipeline, one that archeologists say won't impact native burial grounds.

Centuries before European colonists landed in Virginia, the Monacan Indian Nation built and occupied a city in what is now Fluvanna County. In 2020 the site, called Rassawek, was named one of the most endangered historic places in the country. Monacan Tribal Chief Kenneth Branham says he’s grateful the location will now stay undisturbed.

“This has been a long road from a place of pain, distrust, and disagreement,” said Branham at a press conference Wednesday. “We are glad to be moving forward in a spirit of cooperation to ensure the citizens get their drinking water and our anestral capital at Rassawek and the burials of our ancestors are protected.”

Branham added that he’s also grateful for those who have spoken up over the years in support of the tribe’s preservation efforts.

“And I would like to think that the Monacan people will be there for them should their own stories and the resting places of their ancestors be threatened,” said Branham. “It's only by preserving the stories of communities that are valuable that we can make a strong society.”

Advocates of historical preservation applauded Wednesday’s announcement, while also calling for government leaders to involve tribal nations earlier on in development plans. “Time, money and other resources can be saved when there’s consultation between tribal nations and local, state and federal agencies,” said Elizabeth Kostelny, CEO of Preservation Virginia.

The James River Water Authority, a joint venture between the counties of Fluvanna and Louisa, first set their eyes on the site in 2014. They purchased the land and planned to place a water pump there to help provide more water to county residents and businesses.

Almost immediately though, Preservation Virginia and others alerted the JRWA to the historic nature of the site. Then in 2018, the Monacan Indian Nation got help from lawyers, and began demanding the JWRA find an alternative spot for the water pump. For years, the James River Water Authority resisted, citing cost.

Finally this week the JRWA Board voted unanimously to approve a different location for the water pump and path for the pipeline.

“They wasted a lot of money, a lot of time and a lot of energy,” Chief Branham said. “But thank God we’re here today and celebrating.”

In an emailed statement, the James River Association says they're working to complete the water project as quickly and efficiently as possible, and that they appreciate "the support of the Monacan Indian Nation and other stakeholders in that effort."

The tribe plans to take ownership of the site from the James River Water Authority. Tribal leaders are also in talks with private landowners who own portions of the property. Branham says the tribe doesn’t have any plans for economic development at the location, but instead hope to just own and preserve it so they never have to go through a similar struggle again. Branham spoke of his tribe’s strength in fighting not just this battle, but decades of racism.

“You know we could have gave up, we could have gave up,” Branham said. “But God made us all, and he just happened to make us Monacan. And we’re proud of that fact, and we’ll die being proud.”

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.