The director of VFH’s Virginia Indian Heritage Program is transforming the way we talk about Native identity
By Anna Kariel
“I grew up knowing I was Indian, and that was a pretty nebulous identity,” says Karenne Wood, a member of the Monacan Indian Nation and director of the Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH). “I think by and large we have neglected the Native people’s story and the more recent story of immigration to the United States by people who are often indigenous.” As a poet and linguistic anthropologist, Wood recognizes the nuances of and implicit messages in everyday language and the inextricable ties between historic narrative and cultural identity. She spoke to us about the important work she does for VFH, her systemic approach to revising the flawed story of Virginia Indian cultures, and her vision for the future of the program.
VFH: How did you become involved with VFH? What was the impetus for developing a Virginia Indian Program?
Wood: I became involved with VFH first as a grantee, when I worked with the Monacan Nation as a grant writer and tribal historian. VFH was the first organization to ask us to tell our stories as experts on our own community. The Virginia Indian Program developed out of an earlier project, the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. Native people perceived a need to correct misperceptions and stereotypes and had a desire to send tourists and others to sites with accurate interpretive programs and exhibits. We developed that project over several years and published our guidebook. The funds for the Virginia Indian Program came from the General Assembly the first year as a legacy of the 2007 commemoration.
VFH: How are Virginia Indians characterized by mainstream culture today?
Wood: They are characterized as people of the past. If you see an Indian they have to be wearing a leather outfit, and we don’t expect that of any other group of people anymore. Virginia was a leader in the enactment of policy at the state level, like the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and the Sterilization Act of 1924. During that era, the Smithsonian contacted Walter Plecker [the head of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics and a eugenicist] and said, “Tell us about your tribes.” He said, “There aren’t any real Indians in Virginia.” It is still typical for people to say, “Oh, I had no idea there were Indians living in Virginia.”
VFH:What are some important revisions you have made to state curricula to help dispel these stereotypes?
Wood: I worked with two textbook publishers, including the publisher of one that was adopted by almost every county in Virginia. What we found was a language that was characterized by the past tense. Everything goes back to that moment of contact, Native people as sort of wild animals who interacted with the land without human genius or agency. So we changed that, and we made Powhatan a more important figure than Pocahontas, who was the only named person who was doing anything—saving John Smith. We made a real point of saying, there is a past-to-present story, and the past goes back 18,000 years. It does not begin in 1607, and there is no vanishing into the mist after that.
VFH: Do you have resources for teachers?
Wood: We spend a lot of time developing resources that are accessible to teachers. We also work with the Virginia Department of Education, which has a really extensive website called Virginia’s First People. We’ve been through all of that language and developed our own guide for teachers. We also organize VINSHE, the Virginia Indian Nations Summit on Higher Education, which brings tribal representatives together to talk about issues of shared concern, curriculum development, and how to increase student enrollment.
VFH: You recently launched the Virginia Indian Archive, a digital collection of images, documents, and audiovisual resources representing the history and cultural experiences of Virginia Indians. How does that archive allow people to access information about indigenous cultures in a new way? Do you find that Virginia Indian families are sometimes reluctant to share their personal cultural artifacts?
Wood: The Archive allows Virginia Indians and others to access historic photos and documents that are publicly available but not always easy to find, gathered in one place and searchable using various keywords. It allows people to view primary source materials and collections that were previously available only in library or other institutional collections. Virginia Indians feel, justifiably, that many researchers and other professionals have come into their communities to take, and they’ve given back very little. Often the results of their work have been used in ways the Native people never envisioned. Sometimes, that work has resulted in negative experiences for the Native people. They are therefore sometimes hesitant to share personal artifacts with strangers or the general public.
VFH: What do you see as the future of this program?
Wood: The Virginia Indian Program will continue to help redress the historical omission of Native peoples from the story of Virginia and our nation in general, continually adding to our shared understanding of who we are, and it will ultimately reach into new communities of indigenous people as well, illuminating the experiences of immigrants as well as those whose ancestors first shaped the land we now call Virginia.
About the Author
Anna Kariel graduated from Bennington College with a BFA in English. She returned to her home of Charlottesville and joined VFH as an intern in 2012.