In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Wayne Mackanear Brown, Principal Chief of the Meherrin Nation—Kauwets’a:ka, or People of the Water.
Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?
It's Shagoiewatha. It means One Who Causes to Awaken.
Where is the Meherrin Nation located?
Our tribal office is in Ahoskie, North Carolina—near Potecasi Creek in Hertford County.
Where were the Meherrin people originally from?
According to Mohawk history, approximately 2,000 years ago the Haudenosaunee lived in the Great Plains alongside the great river called the Mississippi. Their closest friends and allies were the Pawnee Nation. For unknown reasons all the Haudenosaunee Nations, including the Meherrin, left and started a migration up the Ohio River Trail towards the Great Lakes. The Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway split off from their brothers and traveled down the Kanawha River. The Meherrin settled in what is now Emporia, Virginia.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
The first written account of the customs of the Meherrin people was made in 1650 when Sir Edward Bland visited the Meherrin Nation in their main village called Cowonchahawkon. Another turning point in the history of the Meherrin people came in 1680 when our Principal Chief Ununtequero and Next Chief Harehannah were the last chiefs of all the nations in Virginia to sign the Middle Plantation Treaty of 1677. Shortly thereafter they abandoned this village and started their migration to present-day North Carolina.
How is your tribal government set up? How often are elected leaders chosen?
We have a Principal Chief and seven council members. All of them are elected every four years.
How often does your council meet?
Both Tribal Council and general body meetings are held once a month.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Yes, we are transitioning from a provisional government to our traditional government, the Great Law. The first Great Law review in over two hundred years was reintroduced to the Meherrin people in 2010 by Wolf Clan Chief Billy Lazore of Onondaga Territory; Joe Logan (Skyyoh-weho), Wolf Clan of Oneida Territory; and Michael Jock (Kanaratanoron), Bear Clan of Mohawk Territory in Akwesasne, New York.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe/band/Native community?
My father tacitly taught me to be patient and tolerant of other people, to reason and think things through before speaking, and most important to show the utmost respect for women. My mother, grandmother, and aunts taught me to have humility, responsibility, and love of family, to treat my brothers, sisters and cousins not only as relatives but as my best friends.
They also taught me about natural law—to learn from the animals and to follow the natural flow of things. The college and university where I matriculated and obtained my B.S. degree in Political Science and Social Studies and my Master’s degree in Social American History prepared me to deal with the world from man-made, human law. These two different sorts of laws made me understand the two different worlds that I had to live and function in. Natural law taught me a better way to communicate and deal with fellow human beings, regardless of their race or color.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
As Principal Chief of the Meherrin Nation, I am responsible for the well-being of all the people. I am the spokesperson of our nation and the ambassador to other nations. It is my responsibility to follow the Great Law and carry out the will of the people.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I must respond to this question from two perspectives, one of the ancient world and the other of today’s world. Deganahwideh, the Great Peacemaker, gave all Ongewe-oweh People the Great Law and the Great Tree of Peace and Friendship. Eventually this Great Tree of Peace was extended to all nations that would follow the white roots back to the tree. This is truly a great and divine document that has existed on Turtle Island for over 1,000 years.
Chief Joseph, who did not shrink from the performance of his duties as chief in trying to save his people, is my second mentor of the past. He should be revered as one of a great strategist. Leading his people, including women, children, and elders, he eluded the United States military for nearly two thousand miles through Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming in attempt to reach the Canadian border to save his nation. Yes, he is one of my heroes of the past!
Lastly, in modern-day times, Kanaratanoron (Michael Jock) is my mentor in helping me to understand the oral history of the Great Law as recited to him by the elders. He is also instrumental in returning the Strawberry Ceremony to the Meherrin Nation after two centuries.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
When I speak to groups of people at special events, I speak of the great chiefs who were great orators as if they were my fathers. Thus I consider them as my descendants. My mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-great grandmother are historical leaders who fought to keep our heritage alive when most denied or did not know their culture. They are my historical leaders.
Approximately how many members are in the Meherrin Nation?
There are approximately 250 active members.
What are the criteria to become a member of your Native community?
Applicants must be able to demonstrate a continuous family history that ties them to the eight major families who have been in this area since the 1700s.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands?
No, we do not have any fluent speakers. However, the language is being taught at the conclusion of every general body meeting.
What economic enterprises does your community own?
The Meherrin Nation owns approximately 49.5 acres of land. Our tribal office and several other buildings are located on the property.
What annual events does your nation sponsor?
The most important event held annually is the Strawberry Ceremony. The Harvest Festival and annual powwow are held the first weekend of October. Next year in April we will be holding our Herring Fish Ceremony for the first time in two centuries.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
The museum and the palisade village are the two main attractions available to visitors on the land.
How does your nation deal with the United States?
The Meherrin Nation has a historical treaty with the state of North Carolina through the Treaty of March 4, 1729. When the United States was created after the American Revolutionary War, North Carolina continued to recognize the Meherrin Nation. To this date, there is no documentation to show that this recognition was ever extinguished by North Carolina or the United States government.
In 1802, some of the Meherrins were taken under the protection of the Iroquois Confederacy of the Five Nations. Principal Chief Ununtequero and Next Chief Horehonnah were the last two signers of the Middle Plantation Treaty of 1677 of Virginia, in 1680. Today, when I speak before any representatives of the United States government or any state government concerning First Nations peoples' affairs, I do so in full regalia and by our traditional protocols.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?
This message is not meant just for the youth of my nation, but for the youth of all my brothers and sisters throughout Turtle Island: More than ever before, get an education to keep the culture alive. Become historians, attorneys, and anthropologists, so that we can write our own history from our ancestors' perspectives. Do not let non-Indian people define you. Here is a Seneca proverb that explains it best:
The Great Spirit has made us what we are: it is not his will that we should be changed. If it was his will, he would let us know; if it is not his will, it would be wrong for us to attempt it, nor could we, by any art, change our nature.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We must take the lead in preserving Mother Earth. Listen to the words of the Mohawk writer Peter Blue Cloud:
Will you ever begin to understand the meaning of the very soil beneath your feet? From a grain of sand to a great mountain, all is sacred; Yesterday and tomorrow exist eternally upon this continent. We natives are guardians of this sacred place.
For more information on the Meherrin Nation, see http://www.meherrinnation.org/index2.html.
Photos courtesy of the Meherrin Nation. Used with permission.
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.