The Monacan Indian Nation of Virginia: The Drums of Life

The Monacan Indian Nation of Virginia: The Drums of Life

The Monacan Indian Nation of Virginia: The Drums of Life

The Monacan Indian Nation of Virginia: The Drums of Life

Synopsis

Like members of some other native tribes, the Monacans have a long history of struggles for equality in jobs, health care, and education and have suffered cultural, political, and social abuse at the hands of authority figures appointed to serve them. The critical difference for the Monacans was the actions of segregationist Dr. Walter A. Plecker, Director of the Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. A strong proponent and enforcer of Virginia's Racial Integrity Law of 1924 that prohibited marriage between races, Plecker's interpretation of that law convinced him that there were only two races, white and colored. Anyone not bearing physically white genetic characteristics was "colored" and that included Indians. He would not let Indians get married in Virginia unless they applied as white or colored, he forced the local teachers to falsify the students' race on the official school rolls, and he threatened court clerks and census takers with prosecution if they used the term "Indian" on any official form. He personally changed government records when his directives were not followed and even coerced postpartum Indian mothers to list their newborns as white or colored or they could not take their infants home from the hospital. Eventually the federal government intervened, directing the Virginia state officials to begin the tedious process of correcting official records. Yet the legacy of Plecker's attempted cultural genocide remains. Through interviews with 26 Monacans, Whitlock provides first-person accounts of what happened to the Monacan families and how their very existence as Indians was threatened.

Excerpt

This is not the usual book from an academic press. It makes no pretense of scholarly analysis, intellectual discourse, or defense of a thesis. The author is one of the people of whom she writes, the Monacans. In a sensitive introduction, scholar Thomas J. Blumer, Ph.D., provides illuminating background on the author and situates the book's significance by way of comparison with his own work with the Catawba. Blumer correctly identifies the work as “folk history” and makes clear the importance of such works not only for the Monacans but also for many other similar groups in the eastern United States. Similarly, the book can also be considered a kind of auto-ethnography in which a people tells their own story through one of their own without theoretical or interpretive embellishment— “just the facts” as they see them.

There have been very few scholarly studies of the Monacans. They have been on the periphery of anthropological awareness of Virginia Indians since the days of Frank Speck (Cook 2003: 195). Recently, however, the Monacans have come to the general attention of scholars through the work of a few anthropologists, most notably a prize-winning book by Samuel R. Cook (2000). The interested reader can turn to this and other works for objective analyses of Monacan history and society. By contrast, in Whitlock's volume, scholars have a gem of a subjective sourcebook, a close-up and down-to-earth recounting of the experiences of Monacans past and present plus a couple of outsiders who played important roles in modern Monacan history.

This is a sourcebook not only on Monacans per se, but also on their perceptions and reactions to external forces that have shaped their destiny. Especially noteworthy in this respect are commentaries and accounts of the activities of Walter Plecker. He was registrar at the Bureau of Vital Statistics of the Virginia Board of Health during the heyday of enforcement of Virginia's infamous antimiscegenation, racial purity, and forced sterilization laws and policies during . . .

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