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Community rallies around Monacan Chief Sharon Bryant
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Community rallies around Monacan Chief Sharon Bryant

Her pace was slower, the need for rest greater, but Bear Woman remained undeterred.

So was the case Tuesday morning, as Sharon Bryant, chief of the Monacan Indian Nation, explained aspects of her culture to a magazine reporter.

Bryant, 53, has advanced liver cancer. If the medical prognosis is correct, she may have only a few weeks to live.

But her legacy will remain.

“You can make a change in the world by just dreaming and loving people and committing yourself to what you believe in,” Bryant said. “No matter what your background is or where you come from or what your struggles have been there’s always an opportunity to change.”

Bryant has served as chief of the Monacan Indian Nation since 2011, the first woman to do so in the tribe’s recorded history. Tribal leadership is in her blood; her grandfather, Harry Loving Branham, was a former chief.

In an earlier interview, she recalled standing in the Monacan powwow as the new chief when she felt a warm breeze blow around her.

“I felt like my mother, and my grandmother and my great great-grandmother were all saying ‘This is good. You’re in a good place. This is where you’re supposed to be.’”

Her tenure as chief has been marked by a passion to uplift her people — through advocacy for federal recognition of the Monacans’ indigenous status and smaller projects such as a Christmas gifting program.

“My people have paid such a high price to exist in this country and in the commonwealth of Virginia,” Bryant said earlier. “We’ve watched our villages and our burial grounds plowed under in the name of progress.

“And we’ve been disregarded as a people, and still we retained our sense of community, and I guess I want my legacy to be — if I could convince my people how important they are. Not just to me, but to the survival of our people and to the survival of this nation and this commonwealth. We did play a part in that. How unspoken it may be in the annals of history, we’re here.”

Having underwent cancer surgery in recent months, Bryant stated in March she was looking forward to living fully in her recovery.

But she began having abdominal pain, according to her sister Brenda Garrison. The diagnosis: terminal liver cancer.

“It took her body completely over,” said Susan Tyree, secretary of the Monacan Indian Nation.

Bryant’s uncle, Herbert Hicks has no children. Bryant is like a daughter, he said.

To Garrison, she is an inspiration.

“You can always hope for a miracle, but sometimes it doesn’t happen,” Hicks said. “But I’m praying that it does but, if it doesn’t, it will be a big void in our church, and our tribe, and for me too.”

Bryant once described the unified prayers of members of the Episcopalian faith as being like the fragrance of a rose rising to heaven.

Now, she is the subject of such collective prayer.

Whether a miracle is granted, faith in a higher power has long been a part of Bryant’s life. She serves as a lay minister at nearby St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, which was established as Monacan mission. She sought ordination as an Episcopal priest.

As human beings, the need to worship and believe in something larger than ourselves is significant, she said.

Family and friends held an early birthday celebration for Bryant, who will turn 54 years old June 22. This week, she plans to spend time at the beach with family.

Tribal elections are set for later in the month. Among the two names on the ballot is Bryant, seeking a second term.

In March, and with a healthier prognosis at the time, Bryant said she was keenly aware of her mortality.

“The American ideal of beauty and fame and wealth are fleeting things — things that have no longevity and meaning,” Bryant said. “The importance of our lives are the things that we accomplish in each other, in loving each other. Our lives, when measured against the vastness of eternity, are what? The blink of an eye.”

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

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