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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 county officials? And what exactly is the historical significance behind Rassawek?
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Rufus Elliot Committee Chair, Monacan Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
- Marion Werkheiser Attorney, Cultural Heritage Partners
- Greg Werkheiser Attorney, Cultural Heritage Partners
- Jeffrey Hantman Professor of Anthropology, University of Virginia; Author, "Monacan Millenium"
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. 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. Today, the Monacan people, more than 2,000 strong, are fighting to save this historic site, while officials in nearby counties push for the construction of a water pumping station at the fork, which they say is sorely needed.
KOJO NNAMDIWill federal recognition make a difference in the tribe's stand against the Water Authority? What exactly is the historical and cultural significance of Rassawek, and what arguments are there in favor of the water pump? Joining me in studio to discuss all of this is Rufus Elliot. He is committee chair for the Monacan Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and a member of the Monacan Indian Nation. Rufus Elliot, thank you for joining us.
RUFUS ELLIOTThank you.
NNAMDIRufus, for listeners who might not be familiar, can you first tell us about the Monacan Indian Nation?
ELLIOTSure. So, the Monacan Indian Nation was the largest tribe in Virginia. We're a Siouan tribe that would have historically ranged from the fall line in Richmond west to about the New River Valley, and from Fredericksburg down into nearly North Carolina. Our ancestors have been here for thousands of years, and we are currently headquartered in Amherst, Virginia.
NNAMDIHow many enrolled tribal members?
ELLIOTSo, currently, we are at 2,400 tribal members.
NNAMDIAnd what is Rassawek?
ELLIOTSo, Rassawek would've been our historic capital. It's the town in which the rest of the confederated tribes in Virginia and North Carolina, the Siouan tribes would have paid tribute. It had been a large community. People would've lived there, raised as their families worshipped, governed, died and would've been buried there. It is where large ceremonies would've taken place. So, even the related tribes in Virginia and North Carolina would've come there to hold these large ceremonies.
ELLIOTAnd it was a contemporary of Jamestown. I think, a lot of times, the language we use when we talk about Rassawek is important. And I think it's important not to discuss it in terms of an ancient village. We don't view Jamestown as ancient. So, this would've been a contemporary of Jamestown. It would've been larger, more sophisticated than Jamestown. And now it becomes a symbol to our remaining people, a symbol of pride that we want to protect.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Greg Werkheiser, an attorney at Cultural Heritage Partners. Thank you for joining us.
GREG WERKHEISERThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Marion Werkheiser, also an attorney at Cultural Heritage Partners. Thank you for joining us.
MARION WERKHEISERThank you.
NNAMDIMarion, can you explain the situation here? What are county officials trying to build at this site?
WERKHEISERSure. So, the James River Water Authority is trying to build a new source of drinking water to support new development in the Zion Crossroads area. And they want to pull water out of the James River, build a pumping station, and then a water pipeline that will bring that water to a water treatment facility. And the pump station would be directly on top of the most sensitive parts of Rassawek.
NNAMDIWhat do you mean by the most sensitive parts of Rassawek?
WERKHEISERRassawek is at the confluence of the James and the Rivanna River. And hundreds of years of investigation and documentation by the Smithsonian, by archaeologists throughout Virginia, have shown that this was a very sizeable settlement. And the testing that's been done at the area where the pump station would go has shown that there is an extraordinarily deep stratified site there that was really very significant to the Monacan people.
NNAMDIDoes the Monacan Tribe own this land or have any legal claim to it?
WERKHEISERThey do not own the land. The Water Authority purchased the land before they ever contacted the Monacan Nation to get their views on the project. But the Monacan Nation does have a right to consult with the federal government. And the Army Corps of Engineers is considering issuing a permit for this project. So, the Monacans are at the table to figure out the best ways to avoid, minimize and mitigate the impacts from this project.
NNAMDIWell, Rufus Elliot, the Monacan Tribe, as was pointed out, does not own the land. What do you think the Monacan Nation can lay claim to?
ELLIOTWell, we lay claim to the history of that site. We lay claim to the bones that are in the ground as our direct ancestry. There is always going to be, in these situations, a conversation around legal claim, but I think there is also room for the conversation around a moral claim and a historic claim. And we're on the right side of this. Those are our ancestors that are buried in the ground. That's our history that we're looking to protect, and that's our claim.
NNAMDIMarion, two years ago the Monacan Tribe secured federal recognition. What does that status mean for this case?
WERKHEISERFederal recognition makes it an obligation of our federal government to consult with the sovereign Indian tribe of the Monacan Indian Nation. And that means that they have to meaningfully consult. They have to seek the opinions of the Monacan Tribe when it comes to considering these permits. And it means that the tribe has a seat at the table that they did not have before federal recognition.
NNAMDIGreg Werkheiser, tell us about your firm, Cultural Heritage Partners, and how it became involved, here.
WERKHEISERWe have a unique practice. We represent clients globally who have an interest in the protection and preservation of cultural heritage writ large. That can be holocaust era, art repatriation. It can be Native American culture. It can be landscapes and modern culture. The tribe contacted us and engaged us about a year and half ago, when they became convinced that the Water Authority was misleading them. And they were not getting the full story with respect to the proposed plans at Rassawek.
WERKHEISERAnd ensured that misleading can be summarized as the Water Authority maintaining publically that there were no viable alternatives but to build this site on and destroy Rassawek. We soon discovered from Freedom of Information Act requests and documents that were produced as a result that, in fact, the Water Authority knew that there were at least a dozen, perhaps as many as 15 alternatives.
WERKHEISERAnd I think that's perhaps the most important point here, Kojo, is that it is a false choice, in this case and in many cases, that you cannot have development without the destruction of history and culture. Clearly, there are alternatives here and the tribe and none of the supporters of the preservation of Rassawek are opposed to the counties being able to get a reliable source of drinking water. The question is: can they get that drinking water a little bit further down the road? And, in the process, not destroy one of the most significant sites to Native American culture and, really, to American history.
NNAMDIWe should say that the James River Water Authority declined to participate in this broadcast, but they did send us a lengthy statement, part of which I will read. Oh, the full statement, by the way, is available at our website kojoshow.org. It begins by saying: Louisa County and Fluvanna County are rural, but growing communities in central Virginia. County leaders recognized over a decade ago that their existing drinking water supplies are not sustainable. They formed the James River Water Authority in 2009 with a single purpose, to develop a new public water supply.
NNAMDIThe James River Water Authority's proposed water supply project will fulfill that purpose by providing a safe and reliable source of public drinking water that will meet the projected needs of both communities for decades. Since this project was conceived, the James River Water Authority has tried to work with the Monacan Indian Nation in good faith to address their concerns. Now, Greg, in their statement, the Water Authority argues that this is the most practical and least expensive location for a new water pump, and that it is needed to supply a growing population. You say there are several possible alternatives.
WERKHEISERWell, they say that there are several alternatives, finally. For a number of years they were publically stating that there were no viable engineering alternatives. And what they meant by that was there were no viable engineering alternatives that they were willing to pay for. The reality now is that the Army Corps of Engineers has stepped up and had mandated that the Water Authority do a robust and legitimate investigation and analysis of the 15 alternatives that the Water Authority itself has admitted are out there.
WERKHEISERWhen they say that this is the cheapest alternative, they're leaving out a number of factors, when you calculate the financial impact. First, they are completely devaluing the value of the historical legacy that will be destroyed. Secondly, they're undervaluing the actual cost of what it would take to professionally excavate this site, if that's where it goes, which will easily be seven figures.
WERKHEISERAnd, finally, they, we believe, do not appreciate the legal costs that will be incurred with multiple years of litigation, which is where this will head. The tribe will file suit, if this project proceeds, in every available form. And that's going to take years to resolve.
NNAMDIJoining us now from studios in Charlottesville, Virginia is Jeff Hantman, an anthropology professor at the University of Virginia and the author of "Monacan Millennium." Jeff Hantman, thank you for joining us.
JEFFREY HANTMANThank you, Kojo. Good to be here.
NNAMDII want to back up for a minute and talk more about the heritage piece of this. Your book tells the story of the Monacan Indian people of Virginia, stretching from 1,000 A.D. through the first moment of colonial contact in 1607, and into the present. What is important for us to understand about this tribe?
HANTMANWhat's important to understand about the Monacan Tribe is that they are an extraordinary story of Eastern United States Indian history. They were a powerful, powerful people, as Rufus summarized, the territory that they occupied, they built large burial mounds that were referred to as monuments. And to just make that point short and to, you know, get to the point, no one came into Monacan territory that wasn't welcome. Which isn't to say they were hostile, but they protected their territory from the English. They didn't allow the English to come in. And in the 17th century, they didn't allow the (unintelligible) to come in. So, this is a powerful people.
NNAMDIWithin that context, what is the significance of Rassawek?
HANTMANThe significance of Rassawek has to be placed in the context of the dozens, if not hundreds, of towns, settlements that were occupied by the Monacan people throughout the last 1,000 years. We talk about Rassawek as the chief’s town. That's the way it was described by the English in 1607. The chief’s town. That was information that was given to them by a Monacan man. He said, this is the chief’s town in the James River.
HANTMANSo, that's indigenous knowledge being passed down 400 years. The significance then of Rassawek was the chief’s town, not only within the small territory of the James, but based at the confluence of two major rivers. Rassawek, as the chief’s town to whom others paid tribute, ruled over most of central Virginia. And that's quite a story that really is just coming out now. And preserving the capital of that place is very important. And the capital of that place, as the receiver of tribute, is Rassawek.
NNAMDIWhat would happen if this site was disturbed? What would the effect of disturbing this site be?
HANTMANThe first thing that comes to mind -- and I should let others answer this -- but the first thing that comes to my mind is the disturbance of burials, the disturbance of the ancestors. I've worked with the Monacan people since the 1990s, and I have seen the emotion, the powerful concern for protecting, literally, the bones of the ancestors. I've been able to see their efforts, before they were federally recognized, to have huge collections of human remains that were stored away in museum cabinets. And they've been returned to Amherst County, which is the seat of the Monacan Tribe today.
HANTMANThe first thing I think about, the first thing I hear the tribal council and members of the tribe talk about is, this is a chief's town. This is where burials will be found. It's not speculation. It's based on a century or more of previous research. There will be burials there, and they shouldn't be disturbed. Secondly...
NNAMDII'm sorry, go ahead.
HANTMANI would just add, Kojo, very quickly, that they talk about digging a six-foot wide trench there. Even though a small pipe would go in that trench, once it's disturbed, it's disturbed. Six feet of trench is a lot of disturbance. And the fact of the matter is, I'm an archaeologist. I'm not a member of the tribe, but I think everyone that's talked between the tribe and other archaeologists is that, let the site alone. We've learned a lot. People have been digging up Indian sites since Thomas Jefferson in 1784. And there's no pressing need, in my opinion, to disturb this site for its scientific input. And that doesn't outweigh the emotional and concern with desecrating a site considered sacred.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk with a member of the tribe. Rufus Elliot, as I mentioned earlier, you serve as committee chair for the Monacan Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. What kind of work does that position entail?
ELLIOTSo one of the things I want to get back to, and it'll in some ways answer your question, is the point that you guys were just talking about, with what it means to have remains pulled out of the ground and repatriated. And I have had both the honor and the unfortunate responsibility, as a young person, to help with the repatriation ceremonies. I've helped with that twice. And so, on two different occasions in my lifetime already, we have had remains returned.
ELLIOTAnd I think people talk about it in a theoretical way, and they don't understand what that really means. We're going to get remains, disarticulated remains, in boxes, in hundreds of boxes in a significant site. And we're going to have those, and we're going to go into a room, and we're going to have to, as a community, go through those remains, try to put them in some reasonable fashion, wrap them up and then have a large ceremony to rebury them.
ELLIOTYou're asking our community to handle the remains of children, and you can tell they're children. They're small skulls. In some cases, you're touching entire skulls. So, what you're asking is for us to handle our ancestors' remains in way that you can recognize, wrap them in bundles and rebury them in the ground, to the best of our ability, the way they would've been buried the first time.
ELLIOTIt is a several-days-long process. And I participated as a young teenager, and I can tell you I can remember it like it happened yesterday. It is not something anyone should go through. It's not something anyone should have. And we consider it our supreme responsibility to care for those remains, as if they were our own grandparents or our own children. And I think sometimes we lose sight of that part of it, that it just becomes dirt with some bones mixed in. And it's not the actual toll, emotionally and physically, on a community to ask them to repatriate those remains. And I wanted to make sure I made that really clear to your listeners.
ELLIOTAs far as the NAGPRA committee, I work to the best of our ability to make sure that we don't end up in those situations, that we don't have to ever again rebury the bones of children.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back here, we'll continue this conversation, and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Are you an indigenous person? What do you wish people knew about you or about your tribe, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Rufus Elliot, committee chair for the Monacan Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and a member of the Monacan Indian Nation. Marion Werkheiser and Greg Werkheiser are attorneys at Cultural Heritage Partners. And Jeff Hantman is an anthropology professor at the University of Virginia and the author of "Monacan Millennium." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here now is Susan in Fairfax, Virginia. Susan, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SUSANWell, thanks very much for taking the call, and thanks very much for this program. I appreciate you're giving the time for this issue. Mr. Werkheiser has answered my question about one of the issues. But I'll turn to asking the panel about what infrastructure and spending the Water Authority has already put into not only the site, but planning for the infrastructure, and what work they've already done on the site. And thank you very much. I'll hang up, now.
NNAMDIMarion or Greg Werkheiser. Marion?
WERKHEISERThe Water Authority has already built a water treatment facility, and they did that without any approval for where their water was going to come from. So, part of the challenge here is that the Water Authority has backed itself into a corner, and is now saying that they have to move forward with this site, because they're going to throw more money after the bad money they've already spent.
NNAMDIWell, we heard from other listeners. Valerie emails us: why is the Water Authority so intent on building on Rassawek, despite everyone having told them for years how important it is? What can the public do to help this important place? Will Governor Northam do anything to help? This is a site that's not just important to one tribe or to Native Americans. It should be important to everyone who cares about American history.
NNAMDIAnd Kathryn writes on our webpage: what can the public do to help save this important historic place? Will Governor Northam or the Virginia legislature do anything to help? As I said earlier in the broadcast, the James River Water Authority declined to join today's conversation, but they did send a statement, which is posted in full at our website, kojoshow.org. The Water Authority says, and I'm quoting here, "there are no easy alternatives" but they are, quote-unquote, "currently conducting a thorough reevaluation of potential locations." Greg, Marion Werkheiser, is that satisfactory to you?
WERKHEISERI'm glad that they're taking the alternatives now so seriously. And the tribe has offered to work with them to analyze sites. We know that there is tribal history all along the river. Some places are more important than others, and the tribe is very willing to have a reasonable conversation about other locations where this project can go.
NNAMDIRufus, the Water Authority contends that the proposed project will not destroy Rassawek, saying: construction of this project involves digging a six-foot-wide trench to bury a 24-inch water line and constructing one small structure to house a well and water pump. What is your response to that?
ELLIOTAs you and your listeners have heard Dr. Hantman already today go through what that would really mean, I think they've got a history already of moving the goalpost, here. You know, sometimes it's Rassawek, and sometimes it's not. Sometimes there's burials there, and sometimes there's not. It's a convenient conversation to move the goalpost for them.
ELLIOTI think it's pretty clear from the coalition that we've built, not only from Virginia Indians, but Native Americans and indigenous people across the country, here in the state through archaeologists, universities and professionals who all agree that this is Rassawek, who all agree that the work that they want to do would essentially destroy large parts of Rassawek, and that they will, undoubtedly, uncover remains. So, I don't think that's -- that's not a debate at this point.
NNAMDIThe Water Authority goes on to say that: no known Monacan burial sites will be disturbed and that the Water Authority has committed to working with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to develop reasonable and appropriate measures and consultation with the Monacans to be taken in the event a burial site is unexpectedly discovered. Greg, what's wrong with that?
WERKHEISERHundreds, at least dozens, probably hundreds of burials have already been uncovered at this site. In the 1880s, there was a flood. The Smithsonian sent down researchers and documented human burials. In the 1980s, at the very edges of the site, there was a gas line put in. And, once again, human burials were discovered. It takes a lot of chutzpah at this point to suggest that burials are unanticipated.
WERKHEISERAnd there is a reason that the Commonwealth of Virginia hasn't mandated that the project's proponents apply for a burial permit. That's because everyone, including their own consultant, has said the likelihood of the disturbance of burials is very high. But, Kojo, to the question that was asked by one of the folks that wrote in about why they're doing this, we ask ourselves that every morning.
WERKHEISERIt would be inaccurate to say that the attitude that these local officials are taking towards Native American culture and remains is unusual. It is the sad case that it is far too usual. But I would ask your listeners, does anyone believe that if we were talking about white, dead founding fathers, that this discussion would look anything like it does now? We preserve places in this country -- if you look at the list of important sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places, we preserve thousands of sites, including ones where George Washington passed through on one night and had a nap. But if you look at the 10,000 years of history before George Washington, the number of sites represented on the National Register in Virginia is a handful.
WERKHEISERSo, this is the way we have valued, in the past -- or devalued -- Native American history. We think there is a sea change and we think that the preservation of Rassawek comes at an opportune time, because it is the first time that these newly federally recognized tribes in Virginia are with one voice saying, not here, not this site. It is far too important.
WERKHEISERAnd to the extent that the Water Authority wants to say, well, there's hundreds of Native American sites, they're all the same, the truth is they're not all the same. And the tribe isn't saying that every Native American site must be preserved. They're saying this, among the most important Native American sites, must be preserved. It must not be destroyed.
NNAMDIMarion, an archaeological firm was hired by the counties to test the site. What happened there?
WERKHEISERThe federal government set standards for archaeologists to be able to work on these kinds of projects. And, in this case, it was discovered that the archaeologist that was hired by the Water Authority had misrepresented her credentials and faked her resume. And the Department of Historic Resources took that very seriously and disqualified her from the project.
WERKHEISERWe also learned from a whistleblower, who had worked for her firm out at Rassawek, that she was using very unethical practices including having untrained, unsupervised construction workers do testing at the most sensitive parts of the site. And, unfortunately, we're never going to know what all was destroyed during that process. The tribe takes this very seriously, and does not believe that any of the work that was done by that firm can be relied on by the Water Authority or by the agencies that are reviewing this project.
NNAMDIJeff Hantman, I want to read one final excerpt from the Water Authority's statement. Quoting here: "The James River Water Authority has proposed to undertake the most detailed archaeological study ever conducted for the site prior to any construction so that we may learn more about its history and potentially answer the unresolved question of whether Point of Fork was, in fact, the location of Rassawek.
NNAMDIThe James River Water Authority invited the Monacans to participate directly in that study and the preparation of the written reports discussing what is found. The James River Water Authority also offered to make a sizeable contribution to the Monacan Ancestral Museum, so that they will be better able to share what is learned about the site. When parties questioned the qualifications of the archaeologist working on the project, the James River Water Authority engaged a new archaeologist." Jeff Hantman, as someone who has done archaeological work in the course of your own research, how do you view that defense from the Water Authority?
HANTMANI frankly think it's self-serving. And the biggest failure of most of what comes from that portion of the statement is that it asserts what the James River Water Authority can and will do. I do not hear them saying “and we've consulted with the Monacan Nation.” Because I've worked with the Monacan Tribe, again, for some 30 years and I never entered into a field study or analysis of artifacts and museum collections without consulting with the tribe and asking the tribe, asking the tribal council: are these questions important to you? Is this something we should do or not do?
HANTMANAnd there's none of that spirit of collaboration. There's none of that recognition that the law requires collaboration -- sadly, very sadly -- in the supposedly magnanimous offer that the Water Association's making. The simple answer -- I don't speak for the tribe, but I believe in response to the offer, that we'll do the best archaeology that's ever been done, is the tribe does not want the site disturbed.
HANTMANThey know their history. They know the importance of this place. Given its sacred role in their history, they do not want it disturbed. So, no amount of, we'll contribute to a laboratory, we'll hire new people -- honestly, it's self-serving for the Water Association, until such time as they consult with the tribe and let the tribe's wishes take priority. And if that priority is leave this place alone -- which I believe it is -- then I think the National Historic Preservation Act, I think federal law, state law requires that the Water Association respect that. Leave this place as it is. Respect it.
NNAMDIIn the little time we have left, Rufus Elliot, what are you hoping will happen?
ELLIOTWell, one point I want to make clear and just around that statement is, there is no donation, there is no amount of money that will allow the James River Water Authority to have the blessing of the Monacan Indian Nation to dig up our ancestors. There is no amount of money. So, I want to make that clear to all your listeners because that's something that's been brought up before.
ELLIOTWhat I would like to happen here, I would really like that we find a happy medium, here, as has been mentioned. We are not against water. We're not against development of Louisa. If they can find an alternative location, which I believe they can, then we would support that, given that it does not impact our historic and cultural resources.
ELLIOTSo, my hope here is that folks in the county -- and these are elected officials -- that folks in the county make sure that they reach out to their elected officials and tell them that they want them to move it, and that we can all get what we want here which is water for them, a protected site for us.
NNAMDIThat's all the time we have. Rufus Elliot is committee chair for the Monacan Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and a member of the Monacan Indian Nation. Marion and Greg Werkheiser are attorneys at Cultural Heritage Partners. And Jeff Hantman is an anthropology professor at the University of Virginia and the author of "Monacan Millennium."
NNAMDIThis segment on the Monacan Indian Nation's historic site was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our conversation about Safeway workers was produced by Kurt Gardinier. The next Kojo in Your Community conversation is just a few days away. It's about changing immigration policies and their impact on local students and families. Join us on Tuesday, February 25th at the Columbia Heights educational campus. Learn how to get tickets and more at kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIComing up Friday on The Politics Hour, D.C. Councilmember Brianna Nadeau joins us to talk about bills that would do everything, from protecting public housing tenants to requiring diaper-changing tables in bathrooms for all genders. Plus, Alexandria Mayor Justin Wilson talks about his city's proposed budget and buying the Freedom House Museum. That all starts tomorrow, at noon, on The Politics Hour. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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