AMHERST, Va. - After sitting in a museum and on storage shelves for nearly a century, the remains of more than 100 individuals were returned to the Monacan Indian Nation in Virginia for reburial.
The remains were unearthed in the early 1900s by an amateur archaeologist shifting through a burial mound in southwestern Virginia. Following three years of work on a federal claim for the remains, members of the Monacan, a state-recognized tribe, were finally able to put the remains to rest in a recent reburial ceremony on their ancestral lands.
"This is a special day for our people," said Chief Kenneth Branham. " It has taken some time to get them back, but now they are finally home."
At the reburial ceremony at Bear Mountain, the remains were wrapped in red bundles with tobacco and other sacred plants. Accompanying the bundles were gourds and baskets containing cornmeal, fruit and meat. Reburial songs were sung in the Tutelo language as tribal members and friends gathered at the base of the mountain.
"This is a day we will always remember," Chief Branham said. "A day our people can be proud of in knowing that some of the injustices of the past can be corrected."
Edward Valentine, an amateur archeologist who lead an excavation of the mound in 1901, displayed the remains in a museum founded by his family for most of the century. By 1990, the remains had been placed in the care of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources. Once they were brought under control of that department and the Commonwealth of Virginia they became subject to federal repatriation law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The act provides no mechanism for repatriation of remains to state-recognized tribes like the Monacan, even though historical and archaeological evidence link these remains to that tribe.
Archaeological evidence indicates the Monacan have been in Virginia for nearly 12,000 years. Prior to 1607 and the founding of Jamestown, Monacan territory comprised more than one third of the state, extending west from Richmond through the Blue Ridge Mountains and north to the border with the District of Columbia. The Monacan Confederacy was known to have at least 12 villages and included the Tutelo, Saponi, and Occaneechi peoples.
The tribes of the confederacy buried their dead in earth-covered mounds. Often, the remains of a number of individuals were buried together. The infamous Indian burial mound Thomas Jefferson excavated on his land is believed by many to be a Monacan burial site.
Today, there are nearly 1,000 Monacans, about 400 of whom live in the traditional homelands of their ancestors. Virginia recognized the tribe in 1989. Since 1995, the Monacans expanded tribal programs and achieved many successes. In a move the tribe characterizes as a landmark decision, the Episcopal Diocese returned to the Monacan 7.5 acres of land at Bear Mountain Mission, including an old Indian mission school and other buildings which the tribe converted into a museum and tribal center.
Although the tribe is only state recognized, it successfully petitioned the federal government for possession of the remains. Diane Shields, tribal project coordinator, said that when the tribe first filed its claim, the federal government suggested they go through a federally recognized tribe since the law does not apply to state recognized tribes.
The Monacans refused and formally petitioned the government for possession of the remains. The government agreed the remains could go to the Monacans if they were not claimed by a federally recognized tribe.
Once the petition was filed and a notice placed in the Federal Register and no other claim was made, the remains were cleared for return to the Monacans.
"We shouldn't have to go through a federally recognized tribe to return remains which belong to us," said Shields. "We were able to prove our case with the support of the state and the University of Virginia. We've been here for thousands of years and we continue to exist, despite what some may think."
The Commonwealth of Virginia recognizes eight tribes: the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Mattaponi, the Upper Mattaponi, the Monacan, the Nansemond, the Pamunkey, and the Rappahannock. Only the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey have official reservations, the oldest in the country.
Several Virginia tribes have petitioned the BIA for federal recognition, including the Monacan. A bill recently introduced by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., would federally recognize all tribes recognized by Virginia.