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Monacan Indian Nation: Saving Rassawek – How historical racism is still with us

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This is a complicated story of a history of white supremacy that tried to erase Indigenuity in Amherst County and how that carries forward today as Tribes in Virginia are left out of the permitting and decision process for development and other land disturbing uses throughout the state that affect ancestral lands and remains.

This episode was made possible by a grant from Virginia Humanities.

And a content warning: There are stories of trauma and racial slurs in this episode.

LOU BRANHAM: My name is Lou Branham and I’m the current director of the Monacan Museum. And Diane is the person that sews and makes all of our ribbon skirts, ribbon shirts and our children’s regalia for the pow wow. She has a true gift directly from the Creator for this because she creates some of the most beautiful things that you will ever see.

DIANE SHIELDS: My name is Diane Shields and currently I am the chair of the Monacan Nation Cultural Foundation.

Well, the jingle dress was actually formed in a dream, I believe. A young woman dreamed that if she had these jingles and she danced, it was a healing for her people; for whomever needed it. And that’s how that started.

The jingles, they got them from the tobacco lids. From the colonial people that brought the tobacco in and they took the lids and twisted them into cones, one cone per day to represent the healing for the year.

STEVE NELSON: Native communities in Virginia have listened to other people tell our stories, now it’s our turn. We’re debunking myths and legends with fact. Teaching you about tribal heritage, cultures and current issues. This is Tribal Truths.

DIANE SHIELDS: Our people, they were orchard workers, they worked in the orchards. But you know they didn’t get paid money. They got paid paper. And then they had to take it to the stores of whatever stores that was supported by the owner of the land. “Here you can get this much worth of stuff.”

CHIEF BRANHAM: I’m Kenneth Branham and I’m chief of the Monacan Tribe. The whole mountain area is covered with apple trees. That’s where our people worked. And if it wasn’t for them doing that, they didn’t have migrant workers back then. But my dad got 75 cents an hour and a house to live in. We were fortunate though, we could raise a garden. Dad always raised two pigs and we had a cow, so we had plenty of milk.

Monacan Indian Nation Chief Kenneth Branham points toward his former family home at High Peak. Below in the fields once stood acres of apple orchards where most tribal members worked as cheap labor.
Pamela D'Angelo
Monacan Indian Nation Chief Kenneth Branham points toward his former family home at High Peak. Below in the fields once stood acres of apple orchards where most tribal members worked as cheap labor.

I would work out in the apple orchards with the men. I was a water boy. I probably walked ten miles a day just carrying water in glass gallon jugs. And they were working on the side of the mountain where the apple trees were where you couldn’t get a tractor to, mowing the weeds and everything. I’d meet them at each end, where they were cutting, with the water. And when they started back, I’d go to the spring and meet them at the other end. I got 15 cents an hour. Fifty hours a week, I got $7.50.

My grandmother told me a story about my grandfather and her raised tobacco. The last year they done it they had a good crop. They weren’t allowed to take their tobacco to the market. The people that owned the land would come and get their tobacco and carry it to them and sell it and pay the bills at the grocery story because the landlord would stand for it and they could go to a store and get the groceries and charge it. But when the tobacco was sold he would take the money and pay off the grocery bill and whatever bill he had signed for and anything left over he would give it to my grandparents. And she said the last year they had a real good crop and he sold the tobacco and she said, paid off the bill and when he came to give her and my grandfather money, he gave them one dollar. And you know that’s the way of keeping that cycle going.

DIANE SHIELDS: So that is a control mechanism. How another society controls people. They never can get our of that. That’s why a lot of our people did move. So they could get better… a better education, as well as a better job. Where they could prosper. Where they could raise their families.

Herbert L Hicks advises the Tribe on economic development. He gets ready to attend the first Sovereignty Conference, in 2021, for the seven federally recognized Tribes in Virginia.
Pamela D'Angelo
Herbert L Hicks advises the Tribe on economic development. He gets ready to attend the first Sovereignty Conference, in 2021, for the seven federally recognized Tribes in Virginia.

HERB HICKS: I’m Herbert L. Hicks Jr., member of the Monacan Indian Nation. I am 80 years old, but most of the people I work with call me the junior person of the Tribe. I am raised on the farm over there and went to the Monacan school. We only had a seventh grade there. Once you finished the seventh grade, you know, they didn’t allow us in the high schools here in the county. It was in the 50’s, because I was born in ‘42. I spent 22 ½ years in the Marine Corps. I’m a Vietnam vet two tours. Came back after I retired from the military, I was in between jobs. And I look back and hearing some of the stories from that people I left behind here in Virginia...but I ah... I just heard, but I never saw this, but I heard the things that these young people going to school back then had to go through. People calling them names and all of that. And so I came back in ‘95. So, I’ll say the dominant society around this area, some of the prejudice was handed down.

LOU BRANHAM: Amherst County was really tough when it came to racism and the name-calling. And there was actually a word that was used a lot call isha. The word issue. It’s spelled issue but they pronounced it isha. That word is a very derogatory word for the Monacan people. Basically, it classified us as freed slaves, yet mongrels, yet not people who were deserving of society. And we were called “red n——-s” and “mongrels” and “half-breeds” and it was just a lot of derogatory terms that were made.

But in school I can remember as a child my mom, they never let me stay away from home. And I knew that girls back then, it was 70’s, 80’s, they had slumber parties and stuff like that. Well, I was never able to go to things like that. And I never understood why. Until I was actually invited to one.

I think I was like 11 and I remember coming home and I was like, “Mom, Lynn is having a slumber party and I would like to go.” And she said, “No, you can’t go.” And I was like, “But why, why?”

She said, “Lou there’s just certain things that you’re not going to understand, until you get to a certain age, that we have to explain to you.”

So, I went to my dad because my dad actually had the final say-so in the house. And I was like, “Dad, I’ve talked to mom but mom says I can’t go to the slumber party.”

So, he and my mom talked that night. I could hear them upstairs. I was one of those you know listeners. I was ear-hustling, that’s what I call it at the time. And I could hear dad saying, “Well, we won’t know unless we give it a chance. Let’s just try to do this one thing. Let her go and let’s see what happens.”

And my mom is like, “I’m telling you I’m not comfortable with this.”

So, they ended up letting me go. And I remember it was like me and I think maybe about six other girls. And of course it’s when you had to have the bus pass written and you gave it to the bus driver and you got to ride home with your girlfriends on the bus and stuff. So, me as a kid and my age now, that was huge for me, that was fun.

So, we get to the house and I remember going in and we were watching t.v. her dad came in. He says, “I’m going to be going out back to my shed and I’m going to work. If you need anything, I’ll be outside. And we were like, “Okay.”

Her mom came in. And her mom came in with snacks. She was like, “Okay, I have snacks for you guys but first I want to come in and get to know all you that are here, whose going to be stay the night.” You know, whatever.

And she goes around the room and when she gets to me I said, “Hi, my name is Edith Branham but everybody calls me Lou, in my family. It’s nice to meet you.”

And she said, her face sort of changed, and she was like “What did you say your name was?”

And I was like, “Lou.”

And she said, “No, your real name?”

And I said, “Well, that is my real name.”

Because it was Edith Lucille. And I was like, “Edith.”

She was like, “Your last name?”

I said “Branham.”

And her face just changed. It shifted on me. And I can remember, but it’s like I didn’t pay any attention to it as a kid, you know, it’s one of those things.

And she was like, “Well, there’s snacks in here if you all want to come get them. So, I remember me and my friend and one of the other girls went to the kitchen. The back porch was connected to the kitchen because you know those old swinging doors with the hinges, you could hear them, “r-r-ra-a-ah, r-rra-a-ah. So, she went out and you could see her out the window going into the shed and she came back on the porch and you could actually, physically hear them on the porch. And we were getting together the snacks and stuff and then I heard her say, “I want you to get that half-breed red n——r out of my house. You take her home, now.”

And, we go back into the living area, where we were, living room and we’re watching t.v. and eating snacks and I remember her dad came and got her and took her out of the room. And then when she came back she was crying, and she tapped me on my shoulder.

And I was like, “What’s wrong, why are you crying?”

And she was like, “Come with me.

And when we went out in the hall she was like, “We have to take you home.”

And I was like, “Why, I haven’t done anything wrong. What have I done wrong?”

And she shrugged her shoulders and her dad was like, “You need to get your things.”

And I said, “I need to call my mom to make sure somebody’s at home because I can’t go home alone.”

And I called and I was crying, and I was like, “Mom, I’m coming home.”

And she said, “What is wrong?”

And I said, “I don’t know but I promise you I didn’t do anything wrong.”

And she was like, “Okay.”

And when we got there, I remember pulling in the driveway. I remember all of us getting out of the truck. And I remember walking to the door and my mother came out on the porch.

Her father had dated my mother’s sister. So, my mother was aware of who this man was. And she was like, “I cannot believe that you are doing this. You have dated one of my sisters. You were even in my parent’s home. You know who we are.”

And he said, “It’s not me, It’s my wife. My wife said I had to have her out of the house.” He was like, “I’m sorry Eleanor. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.”

And she was like, “Just leave.

And then of course my dad came. And my dad is like, “What happened, why are you crying?”

And I told him, “Daddy, I promise I didn’t do anything wrong, I promise.”

And that’s when they had to sit down and tell me more about my people and more of the story of racism and how they were treated. So, at 11 I’m learning, this is how I’m learning.

Lou Branham, director of the Monacan Nation Ancestral Museum at Bear Mountain in Amherst County. She stands at a display of her father’s regalia. He was once chief of the Tribe.
Pamela D'Angelo
Lou Branham, director of the Monacan Nation Ancestral Museum at Bear Mountain in Amherst County. She stands at a display of her father’s regalia. He was once chief of the Tribe.

DIANE SHIELDS: Lou speaks from her heart. And her father was our first elected chief. And there’s a lot of pain there when we all speak because we’ve been through that from one way or another. And I tell people, I said, the Racial Integrity Law was the horrendous thing for our people because we were classified as a different race. We were classified in with the colored race. So, we weren’t allowed in public schools until 1964. So, that log cabin schoolhouse that’s down there was our school as well as our museum rooms. Those were all school rooms. Kenny, our chief, went there. He was one of the first ones to go on to public school and to actually finish. We had several that went to public school but didn’t finish because of the racial problems, the discrimination, and the things that happened there.

CHIEF BRANHAM: You’re not born a racist or a bigot, you know you’re taught those things. The first two weeks of school, about 12 of us that got there early. Monacans of course we lived fairly close to the school. And we’d be out there playing kickball and as the kids got off the bus and we learned their names, “Okay, Bill you’re over here, John, you’re over there. And we’d all play ball together, have a good time. But the third week of school, that Monday, we were out there doing our thing playing kickball and the buses dropped them off and they started towards the playground and they all got to the third baseline and they stopped. And we were saying, “Okay, Susan, you’re over here, Bill there,” and they just hung their heads.

Somebody said, “What’s wrong with you all, don’t you want to play today?”

And they didn’t make any answer, so we finished out before school activities and went class and around lunchtime I saw one of the boys.

I said, “Bill, why ain’t you all playing with us? What’s wrong?”

And he kinda looked around to see if anybody was close to him and he said, “Well, Kenneth, mom and dad went to a meeting at the church... church... yesterday and when they came back they had a talk with me and my sister and told us that we’re not to be playing with you all or even talking to you all. You’re not the kind of people we need to be socializing with.”

And that came from a family that went to a church meeting. And that’s when the trouble began. You know the name-calling, the fights, stuff like that.

DIANE SHIELDS: They didn’t even acknowledge our people being citizens of this country until 1924. To me I always wondered, is there a parallel, because Racial Integrity Law took effect in 1924.

Click here to learn more about Virginia's Tribes

Lucy Curry is a tribal storyteller. She is dressed in regalia telling one of her children's stories during the 2020 Monacan Pow Wow.
Lucy Currie
Lucy Curry is a tribal storyteller. She is dressed in regalia telling one of her children's stories during the 2020 Monacan Pow Wow.

LUCY HAMILTON CURRY: I’m Lucy Hamilton Curry and I am a Monacan elder. I had an aunt, that was born in 1928 and my dad and her, they’d walk to the school. He was in third grade and he would take her and then he’d go to work in the orchards. On their way she got very sick. It was wintertime and she got very, very sick, frostbit. He got her to the school. They chopped the wood, they put it in the stove. They were trying to get her warmed up and she was so bad. And they had to send him again, out to the orchard to get a truck because there was no transportation and they took her to the training school. The training school was right here in Madison Heights. A lot of our people worked there. It was a hospital and they called it the training school because that’s where they got their education for medical. So, that’s where she ended up going because regular doctors would not see our people. And years later, my aunt never had children, and years later, my aunt got very sick with Alzheimer's and as I took care of her and did her daily needs, bathing and things like that, I noticed this huge scar on her stomach. People with dementia can remember way back, but they can’t remember what they had for breakfast. And with her that was the way it was. I said, “Where did you get this horrific scar.” And she said, “oh, it was something they did to me in Virginia when I was sick.” And so I did the research and it appears that she was sterilized and that’s why she never had children.”

JEFFREY HANTMAN: Virginia viciously tried to eliminate Indians, and if you look at how things were taught in the schools and the politics of it, they almost succeeded. My name is

Jeffrey Hantman, I am now professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Virginia.

Thomas Jefferson said in 1784, “They’re going to be gone. They don’t have a future here. He was unfortunately good at saying things like that.

THOMAS JEFFERSON: Barrows, of which many are to be found all over this country, are of different sizes, some constructed of earth and some loose stones. That they were repositories of the dead, has been obvious to all.

Some ascribed them to custom... But on whatever occasion they may have been made, they are of considerable notoriety among the Indians: for a party passing, about thirty years ago, through the part of the country where this barrow is, went through the woods directly to it, without any instructions or enquiry, and having staid about it some time, with expression which were construed to be those of sorrow, they returned to the high road, which they had left about half a dozen mile to pay this visit, and pursued their journey.

There being one of these in my neighborhood, I wished to satisfy myself whether any, and which of these opinions were just. For this purpose I determined to open and examine it thoroughly. It was situated on the low grounds of the Rivanna, about two miles above its principal fork, and opposite to some hills, on which had been an Indian town.

I first dug superficially in several parts of it and came to collections of human bones.

The bones of which the greatest numbers remained were skulls, jaw bones, teeth, the bones of the arms, thighs, legs, feet and hands. A few ribs remained, some vertebrae of the neck and spine…. A skull...appeared to be that of an infant, but it fell to pieces on being taken out, so as to prevent satisfactory examination...I conjectured that in this barrow might have been a thousand skeletons.

Thomas Jefferson 1781

CHIEF BRANHAM: Here in Virginia, the Tribes had been reduced in numbers to the point where we were no longer a military threat. Starting from that little capital Rassawek, they took it all.

JEFFREY HANTMAN: Rassawek is many things. First, it’s a place on the James River that was occupied by Monacan people and their ancestors for thousands of years, perhaps as much as 10,000 years. This place that had been so long been occupied, was identified by a Monacan man, whose name is Amoroleck, and who deserves a lot more credit than he gets, but Amoroleck described the geography of the Virginia Piedmont, the James River to Captain John Smith. So, it is a hugely important site for historical reasons and based on Amoroleck’s description it’s a place that we know is the capital of the Monacan world. If you live where two rivers come together, that’s a powerful place. The confluence is where the chiefest town has access up the Rivanna to reach the other chiefly town of Monasukapenough that Thomas Jefferson studied and wrote about.


In central Virginia, at the point where the Rivanna River flows into the James, there’s a site of deep significance to the Monacan Indian Nation — Rassawek, the tribe’s ancient capital.

The Monacan people, who were federally recognized in 2018, are around 2,000 strong. And they are fighting to keep the site of their long-lost capital untouched. Officials in nearby counties are eyeing the site for a water pumping station to supply a growing commercial center several miles away. Will federal recognition make a difference in the tribe’s stand against the water authority?

CHIEF BRANHAM: We’re on the James River just across from the Monacan ancestral village of Rassawek. That’s the point and if you can look at it you can see the Rivanna coming into the James. That would be very typical of a lot of the larger villages, they’d be on three sides have water and usually two different rivers.

RUFUS ELLIOTT: Rufus Elliott and Monacan Indian Nation. We say all the time that the ground we stand on is made up of the dust and the bones of our ancestors. And no place probably more identifies with that than this area right here.

CHIEF BRANHAM: We need to respect what they did and we need to respect their resting place.

MALLORY NOE-PAYNE'S REPORT ON RADIO IQ: Two counties say they need to provide water to the rapidly developing area around Zion Crossroads, and that pulling it out of the river at this spot is the most practical way forward. Attorney Justin Curtis says moving the pump house could double or triple the cost of the project.

CHIEF BRANHAM: This is a historic landmark for us and for Virginia. All we had was what they were telling us. And their prime exact purpose was to get a pumping station to pump the water out of the James River for the surrounding three or four counties. They had people doing stuff that weren’t qualified and they lied about their qualifications.

Chief Kenneth Branham and Rufus Elliot wade in at the confluence of the James and Rivanna Rivers, close to where Rassawek, their capital, once thrived.
Mallory Noe-Payne
Radio IQ
Chief Kenneth Branham and Rufus Elliot wade in at the confluence of the James and Rivanna Rivers, close to where Rassawek, their capital, once thrived.

CHIEF BRANHAM'S STATEMENT AT A FLUVANNA CO. BOARD OF SUPERVISORS MEETING: Yes, I’m Chief Kenneth Branham. I’ve been chief of the Monacan Tribe for over 17 years. This project’s been going on since 2015, if I’m not mistaken. We got into the picture around late 2016 and we were told at that time, it was a done deal. But because of our lawyers we found out there were other alternative routes. But you made us believe that there weren’t. That put a bitter taste in my mouth. And when someone betrays me in that manner, I don’t know if I can trust them or not. And I hope by the time this is over, that I can say that you all have done the right thing. I know that people need water, but the James River is going to always be there, you can reroute this. But if you go through that village site, you’ve destroyed a historic site, not only to the Monacans but the State of Virginia. And basically, if you get down to it, to the country.

JEFFREY HANTMAN: You don’t take a site that considered sacred, that may indeed and likely does have human remains, the ancestors, not just bones or human remains, this is a culture that sees the ancestors as living, as part of this world.

CHIEF BRANHAM: Before we were federally recognized any company that was building something. There was no rules or regulations. If they found a body, they could have put it in a trash bag and threw it away. But you know, I’m exaggerating a little. I would hope they would have more respect. And Rassawek is just one of probably five or six, maybe even more places in Virginia that have the importance that it does and we want to make sure there’s way to fight and make sure it doesn’t happen there too.

DIANE SHIELDS: I don’t know how long it’s been since you’ve read a child’s textbook but they get maybe something about the Pamunkey, maybe the Mattaponi and then everything else is about the Tribes in the West. So, they forget about the Virginia Tribes. It’s not taught.

We have college students, college professors that come in at our museum and they don’t know the history. They have no idea. We had to document ourselves and teach people our real history. But first we had to find it. The chief just went to a summit in D.C. and they’re beginning to realize, they need to talk to us. They really do need to know how we feel, and how we treat our land and how we feel about our culture and our heritage and how we feel about getting our ancestors back so we can rebury them as well as artifacts. So we’re doing all of that but it takes so much time.

And we’re doing all that but it takes so much time.

LOU BRANHAM: Diane of course she has a true gift directly from the creator for this because she creates some of the most beautiful things that you will ever see. I especially love pow wow time because all of months that she sits preparing and the kids come to get fitted, and back and forth and back and forth. And you finally see the final items out in the middle of the circle. And it’s a bright sunny day and the kids are just smiling and laughing as they’re dancing. It brings her clothing to life.


The Monacan Anthem was written by Sharon Bryant and sung by Lou Branham. 

Tribal Truths is reported, written and sound designed by Pamela D’Angelo. Kelley Libby is editor. Additional editing by David Seidel. Additional reporting by Mallory Noe-Payne.

Support was provided Virginia Humanities and WVTF Radio IQ.

Other music in this episode was Sonata for Violin and Viola in C major by composer Michael Haydn and was performed by David Wang on violin and Amar Basu on cello.