In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Wayne Mackanear Brown, Principal Chief of the Meherrin Nation—Kauwets’a:ka, or People of the Water.
Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?
It's Shagoiewatha. It means One Who Causes to Awaken.
Where is the Meherrin Nation located?
Our tribal office is in Ahoskie, North Carolina—near Potecasi Creek in Hertford County.
Where were the Meherrin people originally from?
According to Mohawk history, approximately 2,000 years ago the Haudenosaunee lived in the Great Plains alongside the great river called the Mississippi. Their closest friends and allies were the Pawnee Nation. For unknown reasons all the Haudenosaunee Nations, including the Meherrin, left and started a migration up the Ohio River Trail towards the Great Lakes. The Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway split off from their brothers and traveled down the Kanawha River. The Meherrin settled in what is now Emporia, Virginia.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
The first written account of the customs of the Meherrin people was made in 1650 when Sir Edward Bland visited the Meherrin Nation in their main village called Cowonchahawkon. Another turning point in the history of the Meherrin people came in 1680 when our Principal Chief Ununtequero and Next Chief Harehannah were the last chiefs of all the nations in Virginia to sign the Middle Plantation Treaty of 1677. Shortly thereafter they abandoned this village and started their migration to present-day North Carolina.
How is your tribal government set up? How often are elected leaders chosen?
We have a Principal Chief and seven council members. All of them are elected every four years.
How often does your council meet?
Both Tribal Council and general body meetings are held once a month.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Yes, we are transitioning from a provisional government to our traditional government, the Great Law. The first Great Law review in over 200 years was reintroduced to the Meherrin people in 2010 by Wolf Clan Chief Billy Lazore of Onondaga Territory; Joe Logan (Skyyoh-weho), Wolf Clan of Oneida Territory; and Michael Jock (Kanaratanoron), Bear Clan of Mohawk Territory in Akwesasne, New York.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe/band/Native community?
My father tacitly taught me to be patient and tolerant of other people, to reason and think things through before speaking, and most important to show the utmost respect for women. My mother, grandmother, and aunts taught me to have humility, responsibility, and love of family, to treat my brothers, sisters and cousins not only as relatives but as my best friends.
They also taught me about natural law—to learn from the animals and to follow the natural flow of things. The college and university where I matriculated and obtained my B.S. degree in Political Science and Social Studies and my Master’s degree in Social American History prepared me to deal with the world from man-made, human law. These two different sorts of laws made me understand the two different worlds that I had to live and function in. Natural law taught me a better way to communicate and deal with fellow human beings, regardless of their race or color.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I must respond to this question from two perspectives, one of the ancient world and the other of today’s world. Deganahwideh, the Great Peacemaker, gave all Ongewe-oweh People the Great Law and the Great Tree of Peace and Friendship. Eventually this Great Tree of Peace was extended to all nations that would follow the white roots back to the tree. This is truly a great and divine document that has existed on Turtle Island for over 1,000 years.
Chief Joseph, who did not shrink from the performance of his duties as chief in trying to save his people, is my second mentor of the past. He should be revered as one of a great strategist. Leading his people, including women, children, and elders, he eluded the United States military for nearly 2,000 miles through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming in attempt to reach the Canadian border to save his nation. Yes, he is one of my heroes of the past!
Lastly, in modern-day times, Kanaratanoron (Michael Jock) is my mentor in helping me to understand the oral history of the Great Law as recited to him by the elders. He is also instrumental in returning the Strawberry Ceremony to the Meherrin Nation after two centuries.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.