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 delighted to welcome our guest back today who’s Karenne Wood, Director of the Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Welcome again, Karenne.
Karenne Wood: Thanks. It’s great to be here.
Jan Paynter: Karenne, let’s explore the concept of manifest destiny. How is this idea, which was widely accepted in the history of the U.S., affecting the destiny of native peoples?
Karenne Wood: Well, a lot of White people believed that it was their destiny to control the entire continent and native people weren’t using the land properly and so it was up to the settlers, ultimately the Americans, to use the land correctly.
And like I said, the Indians were obstacles to that civilization, they were in the way. There’s a wonderful painting that I love and hate at the same time. It’s the Angel of Manifest Destiny flying across the West stringing telegraph wire behind her and the settlers are coming in their covered wagons underneath her and then off to the West under the storm clouds are the Indians and buffalo running away. And this image very powerfully exemplifies the idea that native people were these obstacles. And always you see in the western movies the idea that the Indians are to be chased off the plains by the Cavalry, or John Wayne in particular, because they’re just—they’re not smart enough to know how to use the land right. That’s the idea. I’ve had a few people say things even in my presence like, ‘It was at First Landing State Park in Virginia that man first encountered the New World.’ And I’m going, ‘Well, who was here before man arrived? The native people, were they not human?’ So it’s this embedded idea that somehow native people were an earlier stage of evolution and it wasn’t until the Europeans arrived that true man, who knew what to do with the land, got here. So this whole concept of New World is problematic anyway when you’ve been in someplace for 18,000 years. But those are the terms we use to talk about history and the true history doesn’t begin until 1607 when the Europeans show up. What we call the period before that is pre-history and we had up until recently put the Indians in museums of natural history with the dinosaurs and the insects, not with the human beings.
Jan Paynter: Karenne, how is native sense of place different? In the connection with what we’ve been talking about, America in a sense prides itself on consumerism and we have this intense focus as we all know on ownership. In native tradition though, ownership means something different. Talk a little bit about that if you would.
Karenne Wood: It does. The notion that you can own the land is a problem. In native traditional thinking it’s more like the land owns you because you’re part of it and you’re only a piece of that relational web that I was talking about so you don’t have the right to lord yourself over the land or any of the creatures. You don’t have the right to treat animals disrespectfully. Even plants, you have to acknowledge their right to be here and to interrelate with you in the right way. And it’s—a lot of native people have talked about fences and the idea, ‘Are they trying to keep me out or to keep themselves in? What is the purpose of a fence?’ Because more than anything else that established a boundary that created the inability for native people to live the way they had before. You’ve got livestock in here and settlers farming the land and taking up all the bottom land where the Indians used to practice their own agriculture and the deer couldn’t run freely back and forth and so the native people had to change the way that they lived and it was the fencing to the English that determined the higher and better use of the land, the improvements on the property that in a legal sense established their tenure.
Jan Paynter: Karenne, we know that storytelling is a pathway to knowledge. Another question I think a lot of people and native peoples wonder about is, who will narrate history and who will be the audience for the narration? And I know this is something that you think about a lot. What kind of studies are underway to re-narrate American history and acquaint people with what—with what really happened?
Karenne Wood: Well, I think there are a lot of different efforts by native people and others to insert their stories into that narrative because for so long it really was a story of White man, if you will, and what they accomplished and people say, ‘We were never asked to tell our part.’ And so I think across the continent there are researchers and native people who are expanding that narrative and doing what Joy Harjo called ‘reinventing the enemy’s language’. So using the…
Jan Paynter: That’s a wonderful phrase.
Karenne Wood: Yeah. Using the English language to convey something that hasn’t been conveyed before which is our point of view.
Jan Paynter: Karenne, you embrace an impressive identity as a Monacan activist, anthropologist and poet. How do you see these three identities nourishing and interweaving with one another?
Karenne Wood: Well, they do interweave. I don’t really think of them as distinct spheres. A lot of anthropologists are activists, a lot of poets are activists so all of these categories are just different facets of what I do which is bearing witness to what has happened to our people historically and what’s happening to us today and particularly the fact that we’re still here and that we are just as vibrant and just as authentic as we were the day John Smith showed up, that we haven’t changed our identity, although we’ve changed the way we look. And so it’s important to recognize and acknowledge that presence and to know what happened to our people. A lot of Indian people when you look at different historic events it’s as though it happened just last week not 100 years ago. But that collective trauma is still very fresh in their minds and it hasn’t been resolved. And so until it is, which I would suggest comes by meeting respectfully as equals at the table, there’s going to be this persistent—these issues that still need to be addressed and that’s what I’m taking on in various forms, those collective issues.
Jan Paynter: When I think about what you’re doing, I mentioned this to you, I think about the metaphor of the braid and the ancestry and community history and I did individual identity intertwined and you do it really brilliantly. Your poems stayed with me for a very long time.
Karenne Wood: Thanks.
Jan Paynter: How does the health of the land and the integrity of sacred places exert an influence on the health of tribal culture in your view?
Karenne Wood: Well, profoundly because the native people more than anyone else consider themselves people of a place. They are rooted in that land and so when they are displaced, they come unhooked and that’s a tragedy because they no longer know how to deal with their environment, interact with the beings. If you’ve been watching creatures for thousands of years and you know the behavior of raccoons for example and then suddenly you’re displaced to a place that doesn’t have any raccoons, it’s really hard to make a home in a new place in that sense. Your agricultural practices have to be different, all of that upends you and native people feel bereft when that happens. And so many times through history they have been displaced and so that’s another reason why the social fabric has come undone. But for those of us who are able to stay rooted within our home place, it’s a very deep connection and the language is part of that also so you address those geographic formations in specific ways as though they were your ancestors because we believe they are.
Jan Paynter: Let’s turn now and talk about the focus and goals of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington. What is it, when was founded and what’s its purpose?
Karenne Wood: Well, the National Museum opened in 2004. It was really an exciting time. I was there and we had hundreds and hundreds of Indian people in D.C. so that I said for the first time our nation’s capital felt like home to me because there were just so many of our people surrounding us. But the museum takes a different approach to history in that it’s community centered and it’s not based on that linearity which starts at this point and gives you the important dates like so many of us are used to. So some people have had trouble adjusting to the way that history is presented which is in terms of a particular group of people and the artifacts that belong to that cultural group and defining what is important about those objects within a cultural context. So you have a couple of people who are telling you, ‘This is the basket that my great-grandma made and this is what’s important about it,’ rather than saying, ‘A pummel basket collected circa 1932,’ which is the way that we’re used to seeing an object, which really doesn’t tell you very much about why it was made or what went into the making of it.
Jan Paynter: Well, it dehumanizes–
Karenne Wood: It does.
Jan Paynter: –the connectedness.
Karenne Wood: Yeah.
Jan Paynter: Yeah. Yeah.
Karenne Wood: In this particular example that I’m using, one elder said, ‘A basket is a song you can see.’ And the reason he said that is because you have to sing certain songs while you’re doing it in order to keep your mind right. You don’t want to be in a bad mood when you’re making something like that. You want to keep yourself in a peaceful, spiritual attitude and so that’s why you sing the songs. And the basket is the expression of the woman singing all of that time.
Jan Paynter: Well, and you know well as a poet how you feel when you’re creating a work of art is going to have profound effects on what it—what it becomes.
Karenne Wood: Hugely.
Jan Paynter: It’s a living thing that’s constantly—that constantly changes a poem you approach one day, you go back and read it again and you have an entirely different experience.
Karenne Wood: That’s exactly right. Some days I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this is such terrible stuff,’ and then other days it’s like, ‘This is the best thing I ever wrote,’ and it’s the same thing. It just depends on my mood.
Jan Paynter: There was a wonderful comment in the collected—the book, A Collection of Native Perspectives from the museum, the Smithsonian. ‘Washington, DC mall is the most amazing piece of earth in America. It’s a theme park, a boulevard of broken dreams, liberation and achievement,’ which is interesting because it speaks to what you’re talking about which is that everything is included in the basket; the positive things, the sorrowful things. It’s all part of the history.
Karenne Wood: Right.
Jan Paynter: And it’s true. I wanted to mention a couple of news items that are important and you mentioned something before the program started. The Senate has voted 52 to 42 as of June 3rd to confirm Cherokee Nation citizen Keith Harper as Human Rights Ambassador to the United Nations so he will then be succeeding Christopher Stevens, which is I just think marvelous.
Karenne Wood: It is.
Jan Paynter: And you were talking about a native woman who is a judge.
Karenne Wood: Hmm mmm. Appointed as a federal judge, yeah, the first one, within the past couple of weeks in I believe it was New Mexico.
Jan Paynter: Ah, it’s very exciting. And I know currently we have 10—10 Native Americans have been in Congress historically, is that correct?
Karenne Wood: Yeah, it’s a pretty small number.
Jan Paynter: Yeah, it is small, very small. I was struck by that. Let’s talk about the importance of voting blocks and how native peoples in your view can perhaps increase the amount of power they have. We know in this country that in order to have clout a minority needs to have that power. How can that be increased for native peoples in your view?
Karenne Wood: Well, this is a huge problem for us. For one thing, we’re sort of invisible on the political landscape because we are such a small number. I think we’re .01 percent of the population nationally. So it is a huge issue and we’re not always aligned perfectly with one another so we don’t always have exactly the same goals. But the National Congress of American Indians exists as a sort of political think tank and a way to bring tribal leaders together and in the Obama administration, for the first time, tribal leaders have been meeting annually with the President to talk about issues of shared concern. So they’re at least being heard which has not been happening in the past. That being said, we still don’t command any real respect in Congress because we’re so small so I think for us the only possible successful outcome would be to create allies among other organizations and individuals. And really most Americans, when they hear the stories, if they don’t already know what happened to us say, ‘You know, that’s really terrible. How can I help?’ or ‘I don’t want to be part of anything that perpetuates that kind of history, want to be part of something more positive.’ And so we can increase the friends that we have and hope to get better outcomes that way and if people pass legislation that protects and affirms the position of native people, then hopefully we can come more as equals to the table rather than people crawling underneath to get the crumbs that are dropped.
Jan Paynter: Absolutely. Let’s talk about your work at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the Virginia Indian Program.
Karenne Wood: Well, we set that program up in 2007 which coincided with the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown and the General Assembly in Virginia awarded us a $250,000 one-time grant to begin the work of the program and so we’ve now been doing it for seven years which means that every year we have to come up with a significant amount of money in order to continue our work. But what we’ve been able to do are projects like the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail which is probably the best introduction to Virginia tribes. It’s out there because the tribes contributed their own perspective to that book. We distributed 100,000 copies of it through the Virginia Welcome Centers and Virginia Tourism Corporation which funded the printing of that book up through the third edition and we’re currently on hiatus ‘cause we don’t have the funds to continue printing and distributing it. But we also developed a traveling exhibit which we set up in the inaugural space at the Richmond State Capital and it was viewed by another 100,000 people during the year that it was there. We developed educational resources for teachers like a video with some of our grant funds that was narrated by a fourth grader that fourth grade teachers can use to teach their students more about our tribes. And I think more than anything else one thing that we accomplished that was really wonderful was changing the standards of learning at every grade level so that it’s no longer written in the past tense. ‘Indians lived in this house and they wore such and such and this is what they ate,’ so that kids thought that we were all dead basically. But to say things like, ‘Powhatan was an important figure in the formation of what we now call America because he allowed the Jamestown colonists to survive so let’s not just tell the Pocahontas story but let’s tell the Powhatan story as well,’ and ‘Let’s put Virginia Indians in their rightful place as the native people who welcomed those settlers and enabled them to survive initially and to have contributed all along to the formation of Virginia through the development of tobacco for example and as participating citizens even to the point where some Pamunkey people were scouts in the Civil War on behalf of the Union, not the Confederacy.’ And so there are different ways in which our people have continued to assert their agency and to contribute to the development of what we call American culture.
Jan Paynter: Karenne, how can people who are interested become actively engaged and involved in projects with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities?
Karenne Wood: Well, I would say first it’s important to educate yourself. We have a suggested reading list under our resources tab on our website so that people can learn a lot more about perspective. One of my particular goals in life is to have this program endowed so that it will continue perpetually because I won’t. But it’s really important to me that we continue to tell these stories. There’s so much more that we haven’t even tapped into yet and we say that with the passing of every elder it’s as though a library is burned.
Jan Paynter: Something that we didn’t discuss that I wanted to cycle back to before we close with one of your beautiful poems. Let’s talk about the Iroquois
Law and the fact that in many ways it was seen as a model for our own Constitution.
Karenne Wood: Right. It’s called The Great Law of Peace and the Iroquois Confederacy dates back to at least 1300, maybe earlier. But the story is that there were tribes who were at war with one another and the Peacemaker went to each tribe and convinced them to ally themselves under the Tree of Peace and to bury the hatchet, which is the first idea of this term. So they buried a tomahawk under this tree and the thought is—it’s a pine tree and at the top of it is the eagle who flies closest to the Creator so that’s the symbol for this great law and the idea is that they banded together and they were therefore much stronger than they were before. Then they developed councils which were the early models for our Senate and House of Representatives.
Jan Paynter: Two branches of government.
Karenne Wood: Right. Because each tribe supplied representatives who were selected by the women.
Jan Paynter: That’s what I was going to bring up, the power of the women in the judicial side of things.
Karenne Wood: Right. To speak for them in the council and so some of our founding fathers like George Washington and Ben Franklin observed these councils in action and thought, ‘Why can’t we use this as a model for our own developing government,’ and there are letters to this effect and there is also a house resolution in Congress commemorating the Iroquois people for the development of these early ideas about democracy. So sometimes we tend to say things like, ‘Jamestown was the birthplace of democracy,’ and it was like, ‘No, not so much,’ because these people were already practicing their own form of democracy, which included the voice of women which didn’t come until much later in our system presently.
Jan Paynter: I found it very intriguing and fascinating that it was women who made the decision as to whether men went to war.
Karenne Wood: Right.
Jan Paynter: And that they had final veto power in that regard.
Karenne Wood: That’s right and the idea was that it was their sons who would be in harm’s way.
Jan Paynter: Of course.
Karenne Wood: And so they should decide whether it was enough of an infringement. Now the idea of warfare is interesting too because native people saw that as an instance of correcting the balance that I talked about earlier. So these people have done something to us, they are therefore out of balance and it is our obligation to correct that imbalance. So we have to do something, not just to be vengeful but to set up, if they killed someone, we need to go and not necessarily take a life but take one of their people to replace the person that we lost.
Jan Paynter: Oh, I see.
Karenne Wood: And it was never about annihilating the entire enemy’s group. It wasn’t about killing the women and children but incorporating them into the society that prevailed.
Jan Paynter: Yes, native peoples have a wonderful history of taking women and children in which is something certainly White people slaughtered countless numbers.
Karenne Wood: That’s right. Yeah, they were stunned the first few times that happened.
Jan Paynter: We would like to conclude program two of our series on Native American Pathways with Karenne reading her own words.
Karenne Wood: Okay. I’m going to read a poem called Making Apple Butter and it’s one that’s really important to me because it talks about the women in our tribe. We developed a project where we were making jelly together and I thought it would be a great economic stimulus and what we discovered is that the women came together because they wanted to spend time together, not because they wanted to make money and so I thought this is a really great example of what’s important to us. And so it’s called Making Apple Butter. In late September, evenings bring Monacan women to the tribal center kitchen, where they make apple butter. They gather their aprons, headscarves tied on, descending the hillsides with dusk. The first night, they pare, core, and quarter cooking apples, imperfect yellow spheres stacked in bushel baskets—no crimson, waxed Delicious, no green Granny smiths, no Empires. All evening, women chop as apple chunks turn the color of earth in the air, as leaves begin to yellow in the darkness. They need one quart of apples for every half pint; baskets empty as fingers grow moist, then wrinkle, among laughter and the scrapes of small knives that pare and pare again. The second night, boiling begins. Scents of hot cider, cinnamon, ginger and cloves rise to spread around the women like thick, hooded robes. Quarts of cider or vinegar are stirred and stirred again, the hours it takes to reduce each pot by half, to add the chopped apples, simmer an hour, add sugar, spices, boil again, until dark-gold mixtures turn the mahogany velvet of trees and the scent anoints the hair. Now, through the music of spoons, jars and pots, through laughter, what remains is reduced to the essence of apple, roots and limbs laden with gold circles. We are blessed by the hands of these women who ladle into jars an enchantment made by heart, who condense, seal, process and sell apple butter at St. Paul’s church bazaar, three dollars for a pint.
Jan Paynter: Thank you for honoring us with that poem.
Karenne Wood: Happy to do it.
Jan Paynter: I would like to thank our guest Karenne Wood for the gift of her knowledge, wisdom and deep cultural understanding of Native American life in Virginia and in the country as a whole. I also want to dedicate these two programs on Native American history and cultural life to my father, Thomas G. Paynter, who worked tirelessly throughout his life to preserve and enlighten others about native ways of seeing and who ever saw others as an integral part of the Great Spirit’s landscape. 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.