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First woman chief of Monacan tribe has one mission: the betterment of her people
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First woman chief of Monacan tribe has one mission: the betterment of her people

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One of Sharon Bryant’s earliest memories was of her hair, once lovingly braided by her grandmother each day, being shorn not long before she was to enter elementary school.

Her mother’s reasoning for having her daughter’s hair cut was a protective measure — she did not want the girl to appear overtly Indian.

The evening before the start of school, Bryant’s grandmother took the girl aside.

“Tomorrow you’re going to go to school with kids who aren’t like you,” Bryant recalls her grandmother saying.

“They’re going to call you out of your name, but I want you to know that you come from a long line of Indian people, of Indian chiefs, and don’t you ever believe that — no matter how many times they say it, or how long they say it. Always know this is who you are, you are an Indian girl.”

Bryant’s grandfather, Harry Loving Branham, was the Monacan chief at the time. Decades later, Bryant, now 53, is the first woman in the tribe’s recorded history to hold that position.

While Bryant’s duties as chief range from tribal government functions to being the public face of the Monacan Indian Nation, there is one overarching imperative: the betterment of her people.

Having called Central Virginia home for millennia, the tribe steadily moved westward in the face of European settlement. In what is sometimes referred to as a “paper genocide,” racism against Virginia’s indigenous peoples was codified through laws such as Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which classified all Virginians into two racial categories: white and “colored.” Birth certificates and other vital records were altered to deny Indian heritage.

In Amherst County, the marginalization continued and public schools were not fully integrated until the late 1960s, she said.

But such beliefs go against the beliefs of the Monacan people, she said.

“Our eyes can see that everyone is a different color, but the value of a person is based on how they lived and not the color of their skin,” Bryant said.

Bryant left Amherst County High School at 16, but she later would piece together her education by obtaining her GED and pursuing opportunities of higher learning.

Throughout it all, she said she had a dream of one day being chief.

The base of Bear Mountain in Amherst County quite literally is the bedrock of today’s Monacan Indian Nation. Clamped to a boulder sits the Monacan mission of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. A restored log cabin that served as the mission school and various other buildings, including the tribal museum, forms the Monacans’ enclave at the foot of the mountain.

According to Bryant, “The duties of the chief are truly the passion of the chief — whatever drives the person in that position.”

One goal is to make the tribe financially sustainable.

While now recognized by the state, the tribe for years has sought federal recognition of its tribal status — which would provide housing, education and health benefits, in addition to tribal autonomy.

While federal recognition for Virginia Indians has been an ongoing battle, “in the meantime, what are we doing for our people is the question,” she asked.

Bryant has met with politicians to advocate for the tribe and last week traveled to Washington, D.C. with other representatives from Virginia Indian tribes in support of federal recognition. “We’re really honored and proud to have bipartisan support for our bill,” Bryant said. “… For us, federal recognition goes beyond party politics. As I said before, we believe it is a human right.”

In an interview in early March, Bryant said she planned to meet with representatives from the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development to discuss housing issues.

Other projects and initiatives include a partnership with Virginia’s Natural Bridge Park, the location of an annual Monacan festival. In early March, a group of Vanderbilt University students, forsaking the traditional spring break, spent a week at Bear Mountain to perform duties such as painting the interior of a meeting hall.

“Mostly the chief’s job is riding drag — is being last in the line and making sure that everyone else gets fed or gets across or gets to where they’re going,” she said.

Tribal elections are set for June, and Bryant’s four-year reign is nearing an end. Seeking a second term as chief, Bryant shares the ballot with one other candidate, Assistant Chief Dean Branham, who she called a good friend.

Secretary of the Monacan Indian Nation Susan Tyree has known Bryant her entire life and lauded the chief’s leadership skills.

“She’s all about the children and the people,” Tyree said. “If you need something, she will do everything she possibly can to get it done.”

In addition to her duties for the temporal realm, Bryant’s leadership extends to the spiritual through her service as an Episcopal lay minister at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Bryant’s tribal name is Bear Woman. While it may not be poetic, it is fitting.

“At home, my grandma was saying, ‘You come from chiefs. Don’t you ever bow your head to anybody. Don’t ever apologize for that. You are the builders of this nation and you come from the people that created this life that we know, and don’t ever diminish that or disrespect it.’ ”

Contact Sherese Gore at (434) 385-3357 or sgore@newsadvance.com.

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