Rassawek: An Ancient Nation Continues To Fight An Uphill Battle

by | Oct 22, 2020 | RICHMOND POLITICS

The historic capital of the Monacan Indian Nation, located less than an hour from Richmond, was added to a list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places earlier this year. The Monacan Nation has been fighting to save it for years, and their fight is not over.

Located a little over 40 miles outside of Richmond, Rassawek has been home to the Monacan Indian Nation — a federally recognized sovereign tribe — for over 5,000 years across 200 generations. The Monacan Nation has around 2,400 citizens and is the largest federally recognized tribe in Virginia. 

Last month The National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Rassawek on their America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list as a result of the James River Water Authority, a combined venture of Louisa and Fluvanna counties, trying to build a pump station and pipeline on Rassawek. This pumping station would provide water for the Zion Crossroads area, but would also destroy Rassawek’s spiritual and historical assets.

Rassawek has over 20 archeological sites, according to a video from Cultural Heritage Partners — an organization representing The Monnocan Nation in their case against the James River Water Authority — and serves as a burial ground for Monacanian ancestors. 

“Would you want your great-grandparents dug up and removed and disturbed?” asked Monacan Nation Chief Kenneth Branham in the video. “We’ve got to preserve this spot. We believe that if we can’t protect this spot, there’s no place in Virginia safe.”

Marion Werkheiser, an attorney for Cultural Heritage Partners, said the Monacan Nation came to Cultural Heritage Partners back in 2018 when they learned that the Army Corps of Engineers was considering giving a permit to the water authority to build a pump station on top of Rassawek. However, the water authority has been attempting to build the pump on Rassawek since 2010, and officially filed for a permit to build the pump in 2014. Due to pushback from multiple organizations including archeologists, though, the project has been delayed.

The pump would pull water out of the James River and send it through a pipeline which would feed into a water treatment facility.

“They’re looking to pull water out of the James at Rassawek, build a pump station on top of it and destroy the archeology that’s there,” Werkheiser said. “And also, we know that there are burials of Monacanian ancestors that would be disturbed.”

Elizabeth Kostelny, the CEO of Preservation Virginia, which nominated Rassawek to be on America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list, said the organization has been working with the Monacan Nation since late 2018, when they became aware of the James River Water Authority’s plan to build the water pump on top of Rassawek. Kostelny said she’s been aware of Rassawek since 2014, and this year, her organization decided that it was time to take a more drastic step, hence nominating Rassawek to be on the most endangered list. 

“Rassawek is a very significant cultural and historical resource,” Kostelny said. “It’s a spiritual place for the Monican Nation, and it should be protected. And there is a way to protect it. There is a solution. It’s for the James River Water Authority to look at alternative sites for its pumping station. We certainly want Louisa and Fluvanna Counties to have access to water, that’s a given. We just feel that there’s a more appropriate way if they examine alternatives.”

Kostelny said the Monacan Nation has even provided the water authority alternatives to building the pump on Rassawek. 

Rassawek Historical Marker in Columbia, Virginia (via Historical-Markers.org)

Justin Curtis, an attorney for Aqua Law, a firm providing counsel to the James River Water Authority in building the pump, said the water authority has an urgent need to get water flowing in Louisa and Fluvanna Counties. 

“There’s a water treatment plant in Louisa that is in need of water, a water supply. There are fire hydrants in Fluvanna County that are constructed and built and have no water going through them,” Curtis said. “So there is an urgent need to get water flowing as soon as possible. So the goal is obviously to wrap the permanent process up as quickly as possible.”

Curtis said that despite this need for water, there are “no easy answers” to this situation. He said there are limiting factors that dictate the location where the water supply can come from, including quality of water, amount of water, the structure of the river, water treatment, and budget concerns for the counties involved. 

“The location that was selected was selected because it checked all of the boxes,” Curtis said. “The initial effort had been to minimize impacts to the greatest extent practically possible. It was never to go and find a site that would be picking on a Native American tribe. That certainly was not on anyone’s mind, in anyone’s thought process. When the route was developed, it was, ‘Let’s find the shortest point from A to B, that meets all the criteria that we can have the least amount of environmental and historical resources disturbance.”’

Though Curtis said the goal is to get the water source built as soon as possible, he also said, “We haven’t put our pencils down. We’re continuing to look and evaluate alternatives.”

Indeed, the future of the Monacan Nation’s capital at Rassawek may not yet be determined. Werkheiser said that after The Army Corps of Engineers asked for public comment on this project, more than 12,000 organizations and people sent in comments opposing the project. In fact, she said, the Corps only got one comment in support of the project. Additionally, Werkheiser also said the National Congress of American Indians, which represents all of the federally recognized tribes in the United States, also voiced its opposition to the pump being built. 

“If we can’t preserve that place, then no native site is going to be safe in Virginia,” Werkheiser said. “And so I feel like this is an incredibly important moment for the Commonwealth to figure out: what do we value in our history? And what is worth preserving? And so that’s why I think this is such an important case.”

Last week, the James River Water Authority announced its intent to further investigate the possibility of an alternative location for the pumping station to be located. The alternative site is located 2.3 miles upriver from the Rassawek site. According to Curtis, who spoke to the Daily Progress last week, the process of investigating the alternative site will take around four months.

In the meantime, there are several options available to those who wish to help the Monacan Nation with their quest to save Rassawek. 

  • Reach out to the Board of Supervisors for both Louisa and Fluvanna counties and encourage them to ensure that there’s a full vetting of alternatives to relocate the site.
  • Make a tax-deductible donation to the Nation’s GoFundMe campaign to support the tribe’s efforts to have the project relocated. 
  • Sign up for Cultural Heritage Partners mailing list for updates on the situation. 

Top Image: Map of Monacan territory highlighting Rassawek, by John Smith, 1624, via Virginia Places

Carley Welch

Carley Welch

I'm Carley Welch. I'm currently a rising senior at James Madison University where I'm majoring in media arts and design with a concentration in journalism, and minoring in political communications. I've had a passion for story telling since I understood what a story was. I believe personal growth and challenges are what inspires my writing and allows me to flourish my creativity. I love food, I love to travel, and most prominently, I love to learn. I'm always looking for the next adventure.

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