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Archaeology helping to preserve sacred spaces

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UVA Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Hantman speaks about the importance of archaeology for Indigenous peoples.

Archaeologist and UVA Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Hantman speaks about the role archaeology plays in protecting Virginia’s Indigenous tribes. 


ANGIE MILES: Archeology continues to play an important role for Virginia's tribes, it supports the process of obtaining federal recognition for some, and that federal recognition does help to preserve land that is rich with archeological materials. Joining us today is an anthropologist and archeologist who spent his life studying the Monacan Indians, UVA Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Hantman. Thank you for speaking with us today.


Now, we know that federal recognition has been elusive for Virginia's tribes for a long time. Several did manage to achieve the goal in 2018, but archeology played a role in that. Talk a a little bit, if you will, about how that came to be?

Well, archeology played a role in several ways, number one is documenting the length of time and with material culture, the length of time that Native people have been here in place, that this is their ancestral territory. Secondly, there's a lot of mistakes, not mistakes, there have been a lot of errors, purposeful errors placed into the census record for Virginia, both state and federal census, and those records took away Indian history, said, "There is no Indian history, these people never were Indians and they have no claim to federal recognition."

Archeologists working with the tribes helped to undo that illusion and actually purposeful lie.

It is almost impossible to have a discussion about this without referring to Walter Plecker, who was the head of the Bureau of Statistics or Vital Statistics for Virginia for more than 30 years, and had a list of surnames that he said could not be classified as Indigenous. He, in fact, tried to reduce Virginians to Black or white with nothing in between as part of his mission and we could talk about him for quite a long time, but this Paper Genocide, as it's become known, is what archeology has helped to combat, right, and almost a very serious game of rock, paper, scissors, where the paper was saying one thing but going to the rock, to the earth, you unearthed truths that could then prove some of the oral traditions that the Indigenous People held close for generations. Can you talk about that a little bit?

That's an effective metaphor to the extent that the Bureau of Vital Statistics denied people their identity as they were taught by their grandparents and great-grandparents in a timeless way. The digs, the archeological research, the pottery and the houses, all of those things that were there to prove a continuity. We hear the word a lot these days of, especially at a public meeting, there'll be reference to, "This is ancestral Mattaponi territory, this is ancestral Rappahannock territory." In my case where I'm sitting right now, this is ancestral Monacan territory and I want to acknowledge that. That ancestral term is not loosely used and the notion of the ancestry comes from the people themselves, the archeologists have helped to provide another voice. Now, it doesn't replace the oral histories, it doesn't replace what people know from their learning in their own families, not by any means, but for a federal agency, for a state agency, it's a powerful alternative voice that is rooted in scientific method and so archeology has played a very large role in that regard.

Can you talk about some of the specifics of the material that you've uncovered over the years that said to you, "Oh, this is definitely proof", for example, "That the Monacans were here"? Rassawek is an example.

Rassawek is one example, I'll get to that very quickly, but the first thing for the Monacans is the presence in the Piedmont and in the mountains and ridge and valley of 13 earthen burial grounds that have the remains of between 500 and 2,500 of the ancestors. Archeology didn't discover these mounds, they've long been known, by working with the tribes, working with the Monacans in my case, we've been able to say, "This is ancestral territory and you can define it by the presence of these distinctive earthen mounds."

Rassawek was two things, briefly, number one, it was the chiefest town for the Monacan people. They identified several towns in the James and the Rivanna, Rappahannock rivers, and many of them were chiefly towns, but the chiefest of all those, to whom the others paid tribute, that was Rassawek, it was the Capitol, one might say. I say there's two points of interest to Rassawek for our consideration, because the Monacan people wanted to protect Rassawek, but there was an interest and a very strong effort by local government to build a water feeder to be, to build right over Rassawek, where it sits on the James River, right where the James and the Rivanna come together. A second point of Rassawek is it was the first time that federal recognition came to the fore and the power of federal recognition, because the Monacans were able to use federal law to say, "This will not happen. This is a sacred site, the ancestors are buried here, it was the chiefest of our towns, and it should not be disturbed".

I understand that because of the water and other conditions at Rassawek, it has been inconclusive, let's say archeologically, what is or isn't there, but what have we found at Rassawek and what is still ongoing as far as searching for remains or other material?

So, what's been found is they've stayed away from burial areas, so nothing more to be said there, except that's a victory, and then it's a place that was occupied for thousands of years, so again, the pottery and stone tools, the evidence for the adoption of maize agriculture, many things that tell us about day-to-day life and the life of the elites, the life of chiefs who lived at Rassawek.

One thing I've learned in 30 years and more of working with the tribes is that archeology is one voice that adds to the voice of the Indigenous People. We put the two together, as I've been able to work with the outstanding, had the outstanding opportunity to work with the Monacan people and others have worked with the Rappahannock and others have worked with other tribes, Chickahominy, it's a good combination, it's a powerful combination when there's respect on both sides.

We know you've written extensively over the years, also, about your work, so if people want to know more, they can seek some of that and find your presence in other ways online, but thank you so much for spending time with us, this brief time with us today, Jeffrey Hantman, retired professor, archeologist, anthropologist and student of the Indigenous Peoples of Virginia. Thank you.



Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.
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