What the Revitalization of the Tutelo Language Will Mean for the Monacan Indian Nation
“A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.”
– Noam Chomsky
Throughout its history, the Monacan Indian Nation has demonstrated astounding resilience in the face of obstacles orchestrated by those who wish to eradicate its identity. The Monacan community has not only overcome these obstacles, but has also utilized them as opportunities to reclaim and strengthen its identity time and again. To say the least, the journey has been arduous and the victories hard-won, but the Monacan people have continued to reclaim and revitalize the aspects of their identity that have been taken from them.
One such aspect is the Monacan language, Tutelo, which is in the process of being recreated, restored, and cataloged. The importance of language to a community’s identity cannot be overstated; when a community’s language dies, that community must then use the words—which, as Chomsky said, are never just words—of others to refer to itself. The Monacans’ reclamation of Tutelo is monumental, a fact made even clearer as one learns about the journey that led to this reclamation.
The Monacan Indian Nation is headquartered on Bear Mountain in Amherst County, and its citizens are descended from Eastern Siouan groups from Virginia and North Carolina. The Nation’s efforts to attain state and federal recognition—which it did in 1989 and 2018, respectively—demonstrate the Monacans’ longstanding strength and ability to turn obstacles into opportunities.
In fact, the earliest documentation of Monacan presence in Virginia—documentation that was ultimately integral in the Nation’s achievement of federal recognition—details the capture of a Monacan man.
“The history of our people dates back to 1608 as far as physical, handwritten proof of us being here in the state of Virginia goes,” said Lou Branham, Director of the Monacan Indian Nation Ancestral Museum. “It goes back to a personal journal kept by Captain John Smith. He ran across a Monacan named Amoroleck, took him captive, and questioned him about the Powhatan Confederacy. This document was very important when it came to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and us getting federal recognition.”
In the 1920s, Dr. Walter Plecker enacted what Branham calls a “paper genocide” of Virginia-based Native Americans by eliminating the option to identify oneself as an indigenous person when responding to the census. Plecker, along with the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, persuaded the Virginia General Assembly to pass the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which stated that it was illegal for whites and non-whites to marry, and which recognized only two racial classifications: “white” and “colored.”
“Plecker was in a position of power—he was the head of Vital Records and Statistics for 32 years—and he believed in eugenics,” Branham noted. “He thought that you were either white or you were colored; to him, no Native Americans existed.”
As a result, Monacan people who moved away—often to marry whom they wanted and to generally escape the rampant racism in the area—would frequently be unable to locate family members upon their return.
The United States Supreme Court overturned the Racial Integrity Act in 1967, thus allowing Native Americans in Virginia to marry whom they chose and to change their birth certificates—for a fee, until 1997—to accurately convey their identities.
“When we went for state recognition, we had to mail off our birth certificates,” recalled Branham.
“If we hadn’t gone for state recognition, we never would have known that that documentation had been changed.”
Branham chooses to see Plecker’s contemptible actions as a catalyst in the Monacan Nation’s journey to fully reclaim its identity.
“I’m a firm believer that in our walk in life, we have ups and downs and many side roads that are taken,” she stated. “Plecker was just a part of the plan that happened to happen to the Monacan people.”
Branham’s father, Ronnie, started the Monacan tribe as an entity along with his first cousin and founder of the Monacan Indian Nation Ancestral Museum, Phyllis Hicks. Ronnie Branham was the first elected chief of the Nation, and Hicks was an ordained minister who pastored the church that resides on the Monacans’ seven-and-a-half acres of land alongside the tribal schoolhouse (once used as both a school and a community meeting space) and the museum.
“This land is the heart and soul of our community,” said Branham. “If you take this away, it’s almost like ripping a heart away from a body. The history of generations and generations of our family—of kids playing in the creeks and running through the woods, of people going to the church and the school and attending functions—is here. Here I promote no negative energy. Everything here is positive for me because this has always been a positive and peaceful place in my life.”
As the Monacan Nation’s recent federal recognition continues to open doors to various government programs—including a community health services program that will be open to Native Americans from any tribe and to community members who are Medicaid and Medicare recipients—the restoration of the Tutelo language has come to the forefront.
The process was initiated by the late George Whitewolf, who was a Monacan medicine man, in 2000. According to Branham, Whitewolf spent a great deal of time with the Lakota tribe and shared their language, Lakhota, with the Monacan tribe upon his return. These interactions prompted further research of Lakhota and other Siouan languages, and the Monacan people ultimately discovered that they spoke Tutelo.
The near-extinction of Tutelo resulted largely from colonization. Additionally, the last native speaker passed away around the year 2000.
“A lot of it had to do with colonization and eugenics,” Branham noted. “The United States’ political ideology of things is that they wanted to colonize Native Americans and make them conform to non-Native ways.”
A group of historians and linguists, led by indigenous historian and language activist Dr. Marvin Richardson of the Haliwa-Saponi Tribe, is working with Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages to create a Tutelo-Saponi Monacan Living Dictionary. This online dictionary is accessible to the general public and continues to grow at a steady pace.
“We’ve got to recreate words and grammar,” stated Branham. “We’re currently working on creating words and phrases, but it’s hard to do the verbs right now. We actually have about 700 entry words so far, but by the end of 2023, we hope to have 3,000.”
For Branham, the revitalization of Tutelo is important on both a personal and a wide-scale level.
“When I was little, I remember my grandmother using certain words and phrases, and my father would say, ‘You can’t teach her that,’” she recalled. “My great-grandmother said, ‘If we spoke our language, we could risk having our homes burnt down.’ I think it’s a shame that you have to live in fear just because you have different cultural beliefs and speak a different language.”
As Branham continues to build bridges with community organizations to raise awareness of and garner support for the Monacan Indian Nation, she is excited to see the bridge between the Nation’s past and future become fortified by Tutelo’s return.
“It’s going to open up a new world from the old world,” she said. “It’s our old, traditional language, but to so many it’s going to be something that’s brand new.”