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Monacan poet writes of the history, struggles of Native people

WEST POINT, Va. - Karenne Wood, 43, spends a good deal of time traveling across the country to help with the repatriation of sacred objects as well as the remains of American Indians.

As the repatriation coordinator for the Association on American Indian Affairs, she's also spent time researching and writing about the popularity on the art market of religious objects belonging to American Indians.

"There are auctions in Europe and other places where people are collecting sacred objects and artwork of Native people," she said. "That's what I do in my job - I arrange for repatriation of these objects and human remains."

The job, though, remains more than just that - a job. Wood, a Monacan Indian Nation member, spends the other part of her time helping to rewrite the history of her people, not to mention help with the repatriation of sacred objects and human remains of the Monacan nation.

The Monacans, a Siouxan-language tribe, live in Western Virginia among the Blue Ridge Mountains - the tribe most recently reburied the remains of ancestors found in Galax, Va., which were disturbed by the Virginia Department of Transportation during a construction project.

It's been the upheaval, removal and destruction of Native people, her own people that has served as a lifelong story for Wood. After surviving a battle with oral cancer, Wood channeled that story into a book of poems, "Markings on Earth," published by the University of Arizona Press in 2001. The book also won the 2001 First Book Award from the Native Writer's Circle of the Americas/Wordcraft Circle.

From her poem, "Site of a Massacre," in the book, Wood writes, "Blessed are those who/do not hear cries cut short, /or gunshot or hooves, /who cannot feel lingering/grief."

The lingering grief, the Native peoples' experiences, Wood said, are part of her life, her heritage, and for this reason, her work like any other American Indian writer can't help but reflect those experiences.

"Markings on Earth" is cyclic and divided into four sections, Wood said. The first section is a poem titled, "Directions," which talks about seven directions; the second called "Blue Mountains," addresses the natural world and historical events; the third section is "Hard Times," focusing on issues of identity and violence; and the fourth section is called "First Light."

"This section is about finding ways to redeem yourself in the face of what you've experienced and to make sense of it," Wood said.

Ralph Salisbury, Cherokee writer and author of "Rainbows of Stone," described Wood's first poetry collection as, "original, accomplished and profound. A significant contribution to the literature of our time."

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Wood spent two and a half years on the poems in this book.

"I started writing it about the time I was diagnosed with cancer," said Wood, also a domestic violence victims' advocate and an activist for women's rights. "I was facing the whole issue of cancer and mortality."

With these issues in mind, Wood, who had abandoned her writing years before, decided she needed to write the book to see if she could produce a body of work that others could relate to.

"It's that whole idea of reaching out to connect with somebody else," Wood said. "Indian people have more than their share of things they have to survive."

Most recently, Wood has begun a second book, "Weaving the Boundary."While working on her first poetry book, she also worked for the Monacan Indian Nation - she and the tribe's assistant chief, Diane Shields, co-authored a book, "The Monacan Indians: Our Story." The two, she said, wanted to write the tribe's history and provide the tribe with a publication that wasn't academic research - but rather, a work in their own words.

Wood said Native people have their own voices.

"We all have a story to tell, and we should tell it," she said.

When Wood began working for her tribe, she said that experience changed the whole focus of her life.

"You see yourself as part of a bigger picture," Wood said. "In terms of relation to your community, your ancestors and your descendants - you are in the middle of that. When you work for a tribe, you're working for a group of people, their future - a community. But it's really important not to focus just on yourself."

Wood continues working to return sacred objects and American Indian remains to their communities, and Wood continues writing her poetry and researching the history of her people.

"I don't think we'll ever be finished researching our own culture," she said. "There's so much to know."