Before there was Salem, a clan of the Monacan Indians called this place home.
Monday night, modern-day Monacan Victoria Ferguson told a standing-room-only crowd at the Salem Museum about the daily lives, traditions and technology of her ancestors, and what happened to the Tutelo after they left the Salem area.
Roanoke resident Ferguson is director of the Monacan Indian Living History Exhibit at Natural Bridge State Park. The exhibit is a reconstruction of a small-scale Monacan Indian town, complete with lodge, houses, and activities: pottery making out of local clay, hunting, hide tanning, weaving baskets, gathering wild foods and gardening, raising traditional foods such as Tutelo strawberry corn. She brought some of those corn seeds for any audience members who wanted to take and plant in their own gardens.
Although Monacan Indians recently received federal recognition and are one of the six official tribes of Virginia, the people fought a long battle to win acceptance and respect.
“When I was growing up, my father, Allen “John” Levelt Persinger, said to me, ‘Here in this home you’re an Indian.’” In public, she was not.
She has always known she was an Indian, though “Monacan” wasn’t the word for her people then. “My father’s father was Cherokee, and my mother was Monacan,” she explained after her presentation. One of her grandfathers was Sparrowhawk, a name which was lost when census workers refused to acknowledge it.
She told the audience how people of the four clans – deer, bear, wolf and turtle – cannot marry within their own clan, to keep the bloodlines strong. “When children are of an age to get married, a male has to move to his wife’s town,” she said. Traditionally, American Indians have a matriarchal society, with women as leaders.
Ferguson talked for 1-1/2 hours about Tutelo and Monacan history and traditions, and how trade changed their culture. “Based on archeology, we believe Indian towns would stay for eight to 10 years” in one place, with the people eating what grew or roamed there, and then they would move on “to let an area reclaim itself.”
She said, “Many groups of native people pick one herb for every three they find…If you go into a cattail patch, you leave one half of it.” Doing that every year would eventually deplete the resources, and so towns would move on.
Names the early colonists gave to Indian tribes were indeed associated with the areas in which they lived, and not different tribes, Ferguson said. “All of us are the same people.”
Monacan ancestors came from the west “from where the sun lives,” she said, and spoke an Eastern Siouan dialect that disappeared over the years. Today her son, Justin DiProsperis, “knows more words than I do,” she admitted. Thirty-year-old DiProsperis was at the presentation along with Ferguson’s husband, Dean Ferguson, an interpreter at the former Explore Park.
“For many years, people weren’t sure of the language spoken here.” She said a book of the language was put together in 1883 after the compiler talked to “Old Mosquito,” a 103-year-old man who was the last full-blooded Tutelo. A lot of the songs were recorded, too, and visitors can hear those in the Smithsonian, she said.
“One of the Occoneechee from Virginia got a grant, and spent years rebuilding the language,” she said.
“Today more people are speaking the language than there were in the 1800s,” she added.
In answer to a question from an audience member, Ferguson talked a little about native medicines. “My father was really good at that. He took our younger siblings out and introduced us to the plants…Plantain is good for bee stings. One person’s weed is another person’s medicine,” she added.
Ferguson is an enrolled member of the Monacan Indian Nation which has its tribal headquarters in Amherst, near Lynchburg, Va. Her grandmother lived in Amherst County, and her fourth great-grandfather fought with the Amherst County Militia in Yorktown, she said.
When Jamestown colonists arrived in 1706, Monacan and Mannahoac tribes were in a confederation ranging from the Roanoke River Valley to the Potomac River, and from the Fall Line at Richmond and Fredericksburg on the west to the Blue Ridge Mountains, she said. Eventually many migrated north to Pennsylvania and New York and even Canada in 1789 while a small number stayed in Virginia.
The first contact site of Native Americans and western Virginia colonists “was around here, right here in Salem,” Dean Ferguson said. A previously excavated area along the Roanoke River where Graham-White industry and Moyer Park are located “is probably the most historic site in Salem,” he added. Many Tutelo artifacts from that area are displayed on the third floor of the Salem Museum, Assistant Director Alex Burke pointed out.
Victoria Ferguson mentioned during her talk that although the Monacan Indian Nation has state and federal recognition, “The Monacans are still waiting to get their reservation…We are not a sovereign nation and will not have gambling casinos.”