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Monacan Tribe holds homecoming and repatriation ceremony

AMHERST, Va. - Thelma Branham spent several days canning snap beans, relish, jams and pickles to prepare for the Monacan Indian Fall Homecoming Festival.

For the past 33 years, Branham and other women in Amherst County have sold their homemade wares at this annual Monacan Indian festival. This year's event, held Oct. 3, drew a large crowd and brought in relatives from other states; many participated in a repatriation ceremony held at the Monacan ancestral cemetery on Bear Mountain Oct. 4.

Branham set up her Mason jars filled with fruits and vegetables of many colors on tables in the tribe's office complex for visitors and tribe members alike to buy. On a table next to her jellies and snap beans, she had pies and cakes that she made to sell at the one-day event held each year to coincide with the tribe's harvest time.

"My favorite part of the event is getting ready to bake the cakes and prepare the jams and jellies," Branham said. "The day of the harvest celebration, of course, is also my favorite part because I get to see family and friends. Really and truly that would be my favorite part."

The Monacans, a Sioux tribe, re-established their fall harvest event with the help of a former minister of the St. Paul's Episcopal Mission Church, which was founded in 1908 for the Monacan Indians living in the Appalachian Mountains.

"The weather for 33 years and counting has been great," said Chief Kenneth Branham. "A lot of our people came from out of state to visit, and it was good to see them again."

The Monacans for hundreds of years held two celebrations a year, one in the spring and one in the fall, said Assistant Chief Diane Shields, also co-author of "The Monacan Indians: Our Story."

"We've named the fall celebration the "homecoming" now because so many of our people live away, and they come back here," Shields said.One of the highlights of the harvest celebration is the auction held on tribal grounds to raise money for student scholarships. Handmade items such as quilts, baskets, and leather products stood out among the donated items auctioned.

"We've incorporated our auction for the last five years, and that's our fund-raiser for college money," Shields said. "In May we hold our pow wow, and this serves as our fund-raiser for the general fund. This money keeps the bills paid and helps us with whatever else we need."

The tribe's museum also remained open Oct. 4 for visitors, who also stopped to look inside an old log cabin that served as the schoolhouse for Monacans. The tribe continues working on renovations of the old school building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Bertie Johns Branham, who attended school in the log cabin, said the building initially served as a church and meeting place for the Monacans.

As a child, Bertie Johns Branham and other Monacans gathered in the community for a festival in July - for years before that, she said, the Monacans weren't allowed to hold many of their ancient festivals.

"Once we started having corn crops, everybody would get together for harvest time," said Bertie, who works as a basketmaker at Natural Bridge. "The Monacans worked in the farms and apple and peach orchards. They grew corn and tobacco around here."

The day following the harvest celebration, the Monacan Indians held a small repatriation service to bury the bone fragments of some of their ancestors found on a construction project near Galax, Va.

"It's a happy time that we can return those remains back," Chief Kenneth Branham said. "Then, on the other hand, why should we have to do this when they shouldn't have been disturbed in the first place? The reason we have to do this is the ancestors deserve the respect they do. Hopefully, one day there won't be a need for this - they won't be uncovering them the way they do."

The Virginia Department of Transportation paid for the reburial of the remains at Bear Mountain, the Monacan ancestral cemetery, said Karenne Wood, a Monacan who is also the repatriation coordinator with the Association on American Indian Affairs of Rockville, Md.

"These remains were returned directly to us without any analysis," Wood said.

Assistant Chief Diane Shields said the tribe knows very little about the people to whom these fragments belonged. But VDOT returned along with the fragments several burial stones found with them.

Hundreds of years ago, the Monacans buried their ancestors in large mounds, and for the weekend repatriation, the remains were buried in a mound similar to what the Monacan ancestors would have done. Shields said the mound is a much smaller mound than what would have been used 400 or more years ago.

"They're now buried on tribal property that is held in trust, so they will never be disturbed again," Wood said.