On Monacan land: A three-part series

A view of Point of Fork in Fluvanna County where the Rivanna River (at right) flows into the James River. It is believed to be the site of the Monacan Indian Nation’s ancestral capital city, Rassawek. 


First of a three-part series on the Monacan Nation, who lived in what is now Louisa County and other parts of Central Virginia prior to white settlement in the 1700s. The Monacans, now based in Amherst County, are currently working with the James River Water Authority on plans for a water pump station and pipeline to serve the county’s future needs.

The history of Central Virginia started long before Europeans colonized it, etched and mapped its borders, and named counties like Louisa. This is Monacan land, and the arrival of European colonists doesn’t mark the start of this land’s history.

It just bookmarks a chapter of it. 

Although people have occupied Central Virginia for at least 11,000 years, Professor Jeffrey Hantman, anthropologist and former professor at the University of Virginia, proposes that the Monacans became a recognizable, unique cultural group around 1000 AD. 

It was around that time that archaeological evidence suggests the Monacans began to adopt a more agricultural lifestyle, growing the “three sisters” (corn, beans, and squash) and living in towns alongside rivers. It was also around this time that they began rituals in caring for and honoring their dead that distinguished them from neighboring tribes. 

Before colonization, the Monacan Nation grew crops, continued to harvest wild plants, fished, and hunted deer and other wild animals. They also domesticated sunflowers, different types of fruit trees, wild grapes, and nuts. The land and Earth were important to the Monacan people. 

In a 2008 interview, George Branham Whitewolf, a well-respected figure in the Monacan community in Amherst County, told researcher Rosemary Whitlock that the word “Monacan” means “Earth People” or “Diggers in the dirt” in the Algonquian language, spoken by the Powhatan tribe that occupied Virginia’s Tidewater region. 

“Even our name has to do with the earth,” he told Whitlock. 

Kenneth Branham, the current chief of the Monacan Indian Nation, said that in the Monacans’ own Siouan language, the word for their own tribe likely translated to “The People,” which is the case in most Native American languages. 

This legacy of being an “Earth People” lives on in current generations. 

“My mom, she knew every kind of green that you could eat, and a lot grew wild,” said Branham. “People planted gardens and our people still do today. My son is an excellent gardener. I would like to think he learned it from me.”

The Monacans once lived in dome-shaped houses made from tree bark and reed. They also mined copper, which was used to make jewelry, and traded with the Powhatan and Iroquois nations. The Monacans spoke a Siouan language that most closely resembles Tutelo, a largely extinct language spoken by the Tutelo and Saponi tribes of Virginia. The last fluent Tutelo speaker died in 1990. Today, Chief Branham says only a handful of Monacan Nation members can speak a few words. 

The Monacans, before they were converted to Christianity, were deeply spiritual, praying to the Creator through community rituals. One ritual that the community still engages in today is the use of sweat lodges. 

Sweat lodges are built from wood and then covered with blankets. In his interview with Whitlock, Whitewolf said that in this process, they never cut down a healthy tree, using a dying tree instead to avoid “robbing the environment of a productive tree.”

Before entering the sweat lodge, they light a fire, using stones and water to create a sauna-like environment. Approximately seven adults will gather inside for two to six hours to pray and cleanse themselves by sweating out impurities. Members of the Monacan Nation describe feeling closer to God and their community after leaving the sweat lodge. 

“I really think that it [participating in sweat lodges] makes me complete,” Chief Branham said.

The Earth was and remains important to the Monacans. According to Whitewolf, the community lives “seven generations in the future,” meaning they care for the condition of the environment that will be passed down to future generations.

“This means that one must use his time on earth to try and make the world a better place for future generations by taking care of the earth and all the earth nurtures,” he said. “Then the earth will still be good for generations to come – even for the great-grandchildren seven generations removed.” 

The early Monacans cared for, relied on, and considered themselves part of the environment. They contributed to the natural landscape of Central Virginia through their mortuary practices. Ancestral Monacans constructed what Hantman and other anthropologists call accretional burial mounds. This means that these burial grounds were built incrementally and consist of multiple layers of human remains and earth, structures that are simultaneously one with the natural landscape yet distinct from it.

Some of the burial mounds are the final resting place for 25 to 30 people, but more than half of the 13 mounds found in Virginia contained the remains of more than 1,000 people. Some burial mounds could be up to eight feet tall and 40 feet in diameter. 

Ancestral Monacans would revisit these burial mounds to pay homage to their ancestors, connecting them to specific places and marking these burial mounds as sacred sites. 

Rassawek, the historic capital of the Monacans, was a major trading center located at the confluence of the present-day James and Rivanna rivers. The site is also believed by the Monacan Nation to be the final resting place for many of their ancestors, which is one of the major reasons why the Monacans opposed plans to build a water pump station at this spot.

Next: What happened when the Monacans encountered the colonists?

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