by Amy Teer, Associate Director
Last week visiting the Native American Monacan Ancestral Museum was both enlightening and sad. Bear Mountain in Amherst County has been the home of the Monacan people for many years. The earliest written histories on Virginia records, record that in 1607, the James River Monacans’ controlled the area between Richmond and the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The most western of Virginia's eight tribes, the Monacan Nation - over 1,700 still alive - preserves the past heritage and ancient customs, bringing together the Siouan language and culture. The stories we heard were truly something to shed a tear over. As I was listening to folk tales as well as real history, I was intrigued at how different and unique the Monacan Tribe was compared to many others in Virginia as well as nationally. From cooking methods to the shape of their housing structure, the ways of this tribe as well as the unique struggles of this tribe stood out , sometimes in a bad way.
Upon first arriving at the Monacan Ancestral Museum on Bear Mountain, I ran into Uncle Curtis, a Native that lived on Bear Mountain. Uncle Curtis seemed warm and inviting, despite the rumors that the people keep to themselves due to severe superstitions of any outside visitors. My curiosity was sparked when he explained that over 600 Monacan People lived on Bear Mountain, it appeared to be a very quiet area, made up of four structures, a white chapel, the museum, the school house, and a large building that was the National Capitol for the Tribe.
The true history shocked us. The struggles began early for the Monacan people, being pushed into smaller and smaller areas of land the people were no longer free to roam and move about from season to season fishing and hunting for food. Land and resources became more and more scarce. In the early 1940’s an effort was made to integrate the Monacan People, a small one room school room was built and began to operate as the grade school for the Monacan children, the state sent a teacher, often a retired teacher from the local school district, to teach each year. We had a chance to tour the school, which is no longer in use today, we saw firsthand how the Monacan children began to learn. In 1963 the local school districts began to encourage the Monacan people to integrate into the high school system. The local school bus began to pick children up to go to school. At this time, due to some political figures, many Virginian people and authority figures in the area questioned whether the Monacan people were true Native Americans, rumors circulated that the Monacan Indians were a half breed people that did not have a true Native American Indian heritage. This brought such contention and distrusts within the Monacan Nation that they shut themselves off from any interactions or integration for many years to come. The Monacan People eventually fought to regain Native American Tribal status, but these events did not come without a high price for the Tribe. The result was many of the people relocating, breaking the natural strength of the Nation.
The few Monacan People still on Bear Mountain work to build and retain the rich and strong historical evidence of the Monacan Nation. Although still very skeptical and distrusting of outsiders, these people have been restoring and rebuilding something that they could not afford to live without. Our group (LU students) pondered about taking for granted our cultural heritage and got a glimpse into the how powerful to see a people who had their cultural heritage stripped from them, the confusion and mystery it brought and the work of restoration and rebuilding that has taken place.
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