About Our Guest
Karenne Wood is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation and serves on the Monacan Tribal Council. She is currently a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Virginia, working to reclaim indigenous languages and revitalize cultural practices. She recently edited The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, published by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, led the “Beyond Jamestown” Teachers’ Institute, and curated the “Beyond Jamestown: Virginia Indians Past and Present” exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Natural History.
She was previously the Repatriation Director for the Association on American Indian Affairs, coordinating the return of sacred objects to Native communities. She has also worked at the National Museum of the American Indian as a researcher, and she directed a tribal history project with the Monacan Nation for six years. Wood held a gubernatorial appointment as Chair of the Virginia Council on Indians for four years, and she has served on the National Congress of American Indians’ Repatriation Commission.
Jan Paynter: Hello. I’m Jan Paynter and I want to welcome you once again to our program Politics Matters. We are honored and delighted to welcome as our guest today Karenne Wood, Director of the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Welcome, Karenne.
Karenne Wood: Thanks. It’s great to be here.
Jan Paynter: Karenne Wood is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation who serves on the tribal council. She directs Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University and is currently a PhD candidate and Ford Fellow in Anthropology at the University of Virginia where she’s working to revitalize Indigenous languages and cultural practices. Karenne has previously worked at the National Museum of the American Indian as a researcher and also at the Association on American Indian Affairs as a specialist in repatriation.
She held a four year gubernatorial appointment as Chair of the Virginia Council on Indians through the year 2007. Karenne Wood authored Markings on Earth, which won the North American Native Authors Award for poetry in 2000. She also received the Writer of the Year Award in Poetry in 2002 from the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers. Karenne edited the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, now in its third edition, and she contributed a chapter on Southeastern Indians to National Geographic’s Indian Nations of North America. Her poems have appeared in Shenandoah and in The Kenyan Review, among many other journals and she also is placed in a number of anthologies. She recently finished a second book of poems, Weaving the Boundary, which is currently under review. Today we felt that it was an appropriate time to return to native roots and so we are beginning a series of two interconnected conversations about Native Americans and the Central Virginia Monacan Nation in particular, for wherever we may go in this sprawling country that we call home, we stand ever and always on Indian ground. They were Americans first and given the history of our nation’s dealings with native peoples, one can reasonably argue that the White settlers, who as we know displaced native peoples, actually embody the original idea of illegal immigration. The “law of the land”, it’s a phrase we hear often but perhaps it might possess a deeper, more significant meaning. Our guest today is just the person with whom to have this conversation. Welcome, Karenne.
Karenne Wood: Thanks a lot.
Jan Paynter: Karenne, to begin our conversation, share with us if you would a little about the history of your family, some of the details of your life growing up, the mentors who inspired you in the work that you do.
Karenne Wood: Okay. I grew up in northern Virginia and I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about my own native heritage except to know that I was Indian. My father had made sure that we knew that very early on in our lives and he was really proud of that heritage at the time when not everybody was proud to acknowledge the fact that they were Indian. But I felt really isolated and disconnected from my own cultural family because our family had left early on. It wasn’t popular to be Indian in Amherst County for a really long time. In fact it was really dangerous and so a lot of our people left in different migration waves if you will. Some went to Baltimore, some went to West Virginia, our family ended up there in West Virginia and they were farmers. And my grandpa—great grandpa had a big farm close to what is now Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Virginia, and I always say I wish he had kept hold of it because it’s worth a whole lot of money these days. But we grew up by ourselves and so we didn’t have that connection and I feel like that’s one of the things that while I’ve had a lot of advantages in my life because I didn’t grow up in Amherst, I lost that cultural connection so it’s been really important to me as a young adult and later in my life to reestablish those connections with my cultural family.
Jan Paynter: I see. I see. Talk about your dad a little bit. There’s a wonderful picture that you shared with us of him. Did your dad serve in the military?
Karenne Wood: He did. He was in the Air Force for a couple of years before I was born and he originally wanted to be a fighter pilot but I think his eyesight wasn’t quite good enough to qualify him so that was one of the great disappointments in his life. He ended up working early on in the computer industry back when computers were larger than say freezers and refrigerators. Yeah and so he was one—I guess one of the pioneers in computer systems analysis and that was the career he pursued throughout his life. So he left our family when I was young and I didn’t get to spend as much time with him as I would have liked but that connection with him in my mind is profound.
Jan Paynter: In the Algonquin language what does the word Monacan mean, Karenne?
Karenne Wood: We think it means earth diggers and our people were agricultural people.
Jan Paynter: I see.
Karenne Wood: But what’s interesting is that so many of our tribes today were named by their enemies because the settlers would come along and be dealing with a certain group of native people and say, ‘What do you call those people over there?’ ‘Well, we call them Monacans.’ And it might even be a pejorative term. Like I’ve heard the word Sioux derives from a Chippewa word that means snakes in the grass. So we still carry these ideas of enmity among us, even when we don’t feel that anymore.
Jan Paynter: Human nature is interesting.
Karenne Wood: It is.
Jan Paynter: Does the Monacan language survive and is it spoken?
Karenne Wood: It does survive. It was documented in a strange place up in Canada at Brantford. Some of our people, the Tutelo group, had migrated up north to escape the pressures that they found here in Virginia. And so they went to New York, affiliated with the Iroquois people and stayed in Pennsylvania first, then New York, then went to Ontario where there was a horrible epidemic of cholera that wiped out most of them. But there was one fellow whose name was Nikonha and he was known to his friends as Old Mosquito and he was the one who provided most of the vocabulary that we have today. So an anthropologist named Horatio Hale in the late 1800s documented that language and was the first to assert its Siouan origin. So it wasn’t Algonquin, it wasn’t Iroquois and like the other languages spoken in Virginia this was a distinctly different language family and that’s the body of work on which I draw now to reconstruct the language.
Jan Paynter: In earlier history, Karenne, what did the typical Monacan familial structure look like?
Karenne Wood: Well, our people were matrilineal and matri-local which means the man married into a woman’s family, he went to live with them and he didn’t necessarily raise his own kids. They were raised by the mother’s brother. So the uncle becomes the important figure to the children.
Jan Paynter: That’s fascinating.
Karenne Wood: Yeah. And the husband would have a job as the brother of his sister with her kids. But his job as a provider was to provide—to engage in warfare and that sort of thing. And women had a lot more say in their familial structure than is generally understood because they were the clan mothers, they were the keepers of the agricultural products so they controlled the food surplus and they had a lot of say in decisions about when the nation went to war as well as domestic matters.
Jan Paynter: Discuss if you would the Siouan spiritual belief system. I think people would find that fascinating.
Karenne Wood: Okay. Less is known about that or I guess less is generally understood in the American populace about our belief system but it centers around the sacredness of women in particular, of people as part of a relational system. So everything is related, everything is part of a web and your job as a human being is to interact with other beings in a respectful way. So that for instance, when you take the life of a deer to feed yourself, you understand the animal to be giving itself to you and it’s your job to give back and to treat the spirit of that animal with respect. And so there were many different religious rituals that were all about keeping human beings and the earth in balance with one another and those were the rituals that we enacted in order to understand ourselves as part of that web. You were never to think of yourself as an individual and to distinguish yourself in that way, which is really different from our culture now.
Jan Paynter: It’s completely different. Yeah, it is.
Karenne Wood: Yeah.
Jan Paynter: What role did the Episcopalian mission school play in the lives of native peoples in the 1860s and then moving forward to talk about Monacan life? How did St. Paul’s Church play an important role for natives?
Karenne Wood: Okay, well, initially native people weren’t exposed to Christian religion and that happened fairly late. A lot of native people had contact with missionaries very early on and our people did not. And so it was in the late 1800s that an article appeared in the paper and a woman was saying, ‘It’s really surprising that these people have retained any sense of morality because they aren’t exposed to Christianity and wouldn’t it be a good idea for there to be some religious services provided to them?’ So for awhile we had some itinerate ministers who would come through and dam up the creek for baptisms and preach to the folks and then eventually the Episcopal mission was established at St. Paul’s. That was in 1908 and a school was set up for the children from the first through the sixth grade initially in one room and the missionaries provided the schooling as well as the church services and people were very proud to have their own Indian church and provided from their very meager means the ability to erect the church building itself. So that became a place where they were safe and even though they were exposed to Christian teachings, which stressed that they needed to abandon their own spiritual beliefs, at the same time they were provided a place where it was okay to be Indian.
Jan Paynter: Oh, I see. So they had owner—had a sense of ownership.
Karenne Wood: Right. Right. This is ours. This is our place.
Jan Paynter: In connection with education, were Monacans in Amherst County granted the opportunity for an education and to what age were they allowed to remain in school?
Karenne Wood: Well, that was it, this one room school up until 1963 was all the education that was available and a lot of kids had to work in the fields with their families because they were all very poor and our people were the apple pickers at the time when the orchards were prevalent in the mountain regions. And so when it was time for apple picking, there was no going to school for instance. Also the roads were dirt and so when the roads were too muddy the kids didn’t get to go to school. So if you were lucky, you got to go to the sixth and then later the seventh grade but there was no high school available for Virginia Indian students. If they were able to go at all, it was to a federal Indian boarding school in some place like Muskogee, Oklahoma. So the other tribes sent their kids out to that facility and the child who was maybe 12 or 13 was thrust into a completely different environment and unable to come back for the entire school year because they couldn’t afford to come home for Christmas. So Monacan kids didn’t even do that, it was just no high school for them.
Jan Paynter: I was going to ask you actually, that’s great that you brought that up, is the role of the boarding schools and how actually they destroyed a lot of native confidence and deemphasized anything to do with Indian peoples and that was the goal.
Karenne Wood: Right. The federal boarding schools were set up for the purpose of assimilation. In the motto they say, ‘Kill the Indian, save the man.’ So the idea was, ‘We will take away everything that’s cultural about you as an Indian person and remake you in our own image and put you into a service project environment where you’re working with White families over the summer and learning how to be of service to them.’
Jan Paynter: Yes, it’s a very cagey way to have servants in a sense.
Karenne Wood: It was. It was.
Jan Paynter: Absolutely.
Karenne Wood: And they were punished if they spoke their own language or engaged in any religious traditions while they were at the school. Lots of kids ran away, a number of them died of homesickness and diseases and it was generally speaking a painful experience for them. Some kids have said they enjoyed the boarding schools.
Jan Paynter: Yeah, I read that. Yeah.
Karenne Wood: But many of them have said they did not and they were abused in various ways and it really undermined the family structure among tribes, particularly out west.
Jan Paynter: Well, it had to be a very lonely experience being divorced from your family in that way.
Karenne Wood: Yeah.
Jan Paynter: What kind of work opportunities were open to Monacan people in Amherst?
Karenne Wood: Well, it was pretty much the apple picking and cutting what they called pulp wood, so wood for paper and there weren’t any what they call public jobs. So you couldn’t go to apply for a job. Most of our folks were illiterate up until the school system provided some education for them but they weren’t highly educated people and so their access to jobs was really limited.
Jan Paynter: I was fascinated, Karenne, when I was reading the book Monacan Nations of Virginia: Drums of Life in which you contributed a chapter along the lines of what we were just discussing. Betty Hamilton Branham talks about the fact that she’s never learned to read and now she’s contributed to a book and she can hold it and look at the pictures but she can’t read what it says, which was very moving.
Karenne Wood: One of the experiences that I had fairly early on, we set up a program where we could bring our elders to local universities and show them what was available with their grandkids and there was a mentoring program for the elders to be involved with the kids as well as for them to meet students at those universities. And we brought the elders down to Virginia Tech and some of them cried because it had been so unthinkable for them to have that kind of a higher education and now it was accessible to their grandchildren and for me—they said, ‘You younger folks need to get into those books and change what they wrote about us because the stories are wrong. And when they called us savages and barbarians, we don’t see ourselves that way. We are wonderful, beautiful people, very generous at heart and we want people to know that about us, not those stories that appear so painfully.’ So I took that very seriously. That’s one of the main reasons why I do what I do.
Jan Paynter: Well, sure. Allowing people to have control over their own history is critically important to self-esteem and identity.
Karenne Wood: And when you look back at those old textbooks there is no native perspective. The Indians appear at 1607 and become hostile to the Americans or the settlers, whatever they were at the beginning, and then very quickly become some sort of obstacles to civilization. So they’re always in the way and then they vanish around 1700 and we start seeing words like extinct and vanishing Native Americans. Well, American Indians back in those days. But this notion of just kind of disappearing into the mist and isn’t that convenient.
Jan Paynter: Well, and it’s incredible because the first settlers come here and they speak about it as an empty land.
Karenne Wood: Right.
Jan Paynter: In what sense was it empty and then of course they set about actually causing those people to begin to disappear. Karenne, what was the significance of the 1830 Indian Removal Act passed under Andrew Jackson as we go back and talk a little bit about history here.
Karenne Wood: Okay, well, in a more national sense it affected tribes out west by apportioning land to individual people through allotments. So whereas before all the land was held in trust by the tribe in a sort of communal sense, this was going to cut it up and give each person, I think it was 160 acres. So the Dawes Allotment Act did more to divide native peoples access to their lands than any other piece of legislation and what ended up happening was that a number of native people sold their lands and then you get this checkerboard effect on reservations which makes the land unusable because you can’t get large blocks of it for ranching purposes for example. You have all these, ‘I can use this piece but not that piece.’
Jan Paynter: Yeah, and trouble accessing it too. Sure. Karenne, anthropologist Jeffrey Hantman, who I believe you know well, notes in his very informative Between Powhatan and Quirank: Reconstructing the Monacan Culture and History in Context of Jamestown, that the Monacans kept their distance from the English and as a result were somewhat overlooked by historians who focused on the more visible Powhatan who were likely competitors and rival tribes both dealing for instance with copper. He forcefully quotes historian and essayist Todorov who notes that, ‘Each of us is the other’s barbarian. To become such a thing one need only speak of the language of which the other is ignorant. It is merely babble in his ears’. And I was struck by—as I was reading one of the books on native peoples, Native American and Monacan William Carson Branham notes powerfully that, ‘Whenever anyone or a group become afraid of something they don’t understand, their instinct is to get rid of the object of their fears’. Karenne, who is Dr. Plecker?
Karenne Wood: Dr. Plecker, Walter Plecker was a physician who distinguished himself with rural birthing techniques and working with midwives early in his career but quickly became enamored of the idea that race mixing was a really bad idea and set himself up as an authority on who was able to marry within the White group and who belonged to the so-called colored category and he worked very hard for the passage of the 1924 Racial Integrity Act which made it a felony in Virginia for a person of color to marry a person who was considered White. And so he also made it his business to change the birth certificates of Indian people and to write colored on the back or, ‘There are no Indians in Virginia,’ or he called them issues at some point and they had different labels at different points in his career but always he was about the business of making sure that Indian people did not enter the White race. And he wrote letters to hospital personnel and clerks of the court saying, ‘Not only are these people committing a felony if they marry outside their race but so are you and you could go to the penitentiary.’ We have copies of letters like that here in Special Collections at the University of Virginia and other places. So in essence he’s using state funds to promulgate his belief that White people were superior to everybody else and he was going to make sure that none of us got into his group.
Jan Paynter: It’s interesting. He was there too between 1912 and 1948 so he had a long, dictatorial tenure there.
Karenne Wood: He did and even after he passed, the people who succeeded him were his students and also practiced his beliefs up until 1967 with the passage of Loving vs. Virginia.
Jan Paynter: That was going to be my next question, if you’d talk a little bit about the significance of Loving.
Karenne Wood: Sure. That was a Supreme Court case which made it unconstitutional to have laws like the Racial Integrity Act, the miscegenation laws which were about race mixing. Really what they were trying to do was to create superior groups of human beings by protecting the White race which they believed to be more intelligent than other people.
Jan Paynter: Karenne, return to the—we talked a little bit about issue and the demeaning term that it is. In the program we talked about that and this leads to the—what you do and that is words have power as we all know to harm or heal. So discuss if you would the power of words and oral tradition as medicine and also how you envision your role as a native poet in contemporary American life.
Karenne Wood: Well, native people have always believed that words are powerful. Stories and songs are the way that we transmitted our cultural values to the next generation. And so they—I don’t want to use the word magical, I want to say they’re just powerful. You can call things into being or you can create negativity with words and thoughts. I think we all know that on a superficial level but our culture today, words are commodified and their communication is cheap. We have the internet and everything’s free and people will say things without really thinking about it. Native people didn’t do that. They thought about what they were going to say and they used words judiciously and I think that has a huge bearing on my work as a poet because language is powerful and that’s how I want to convey a message to people who read my work that our value systems are beautiful and important and the way that we use words matters.
Jan Paynter: One of the things that I loved so much in reading your poetry—and I really enjoy poetry when it is—when it creates a painting and you’re reading the words but you’re seeing the colors. And of course it makes sense that a native person would be particularly attuned to how to do that, to be able to paint with words and you do that so powerfully and I really commend everyone to read your book.
Karenne Wood: Thank you.
Jan Paynter: We’re going to conclude program one of our series with Karenne Wood in her own words.
Karenne Wood: This is a poem I wrote for my dad. It was about the only time that he and I danced together and the scene was a veteran’s dance. We’re the only people who honor our veterans at every pow wow by having a veteran’s dance for them because our warriors are so important to us. And so it’s called Veterans’ Dance with My Father.
We who dance apart
know well how not to say
what was abandoned
or migrated from
lost as our very bones
sink toward the past
history shoveled over
an inscrutable future.
As a boy no one told you
after pestilence burning
slavery massacres turning the
people against one another
after the colonized rum-induced shame of it there were
no schools for us and we were called mongrels
who could have told us
We did, though so dance
until your footpads feel drumbeats
Dance your haircut and denims
your tennis shoes athletic socks
Dance the skin you called white
which is copper Dance earth-
colored eyes, yourself in air-
force uniform forty years ago.
Dance the ancestors’ voices
a heart that remembers
your relations all of us
who have identified you.
Jan Paynter: Thank you for honoring us with that poem.
Karenne Wood: Happy to do it.
Jan Paynter: Thank you at home for joining our conversation. If you would like more information concerning the topic under discussion today, we invite you to take a look at our website at politicsmatters.org. We will be posting a number of books, articles and relevant links on many of the issues under discussion today there for you. You will also find there a complete archive of all prior Politics Matters broadcasts which you may watch in their entirety at any time. We’re in the process of revamping our website and will be posting extended versions of the interviews online as well and will shortly be adding more content. As always, we’re very interested in hearing from you with any ideas, questions and concerns for future programs. We encourage you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are on PBS WVPT on the second and last Sunday of every month at 11:30 am. Thank you again and until next we meet, I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.
Virginia Indian Archive
Virginia Foundation for Humanities
National Museum of the Native American
History and the Headlines
Virginia’s First People
Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life
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