Healing old wounds

Published 10:24 am Monday, July 16, 2012

A family squabble that divided a local Native American tribe has been settled through the legal system.

Superior Court Judge Gary E. Trawick ended years of a bitter divide among the Meherrin Indians by issuing a consent order, one where the tribe agreed to form one election board, comprised of members from both sides. The judge’s ruling also ordered a special election of Meherrin Chief and Tribal Council members.

“Judge Trawick’s ruling was fair and straight forward,” said Wayne Brown, who won a landslide victory as Meherrin Chief in the recent election. “His ruling placed the outcome in the hands of the Meherrin people, thus ensuring that the State of North Carolina would not interfere in sovereign tribal affairs.”

As per Judge Trawick’s order, three members of the Meherrin Tribal Council were to retain their positions – Jonathan Caudill, Chairman;  Dorothy Lee Livingston, Secretary;  and Fred Hedgepath, Public Relations Director. Those seats are due to expire in one year.

Brown said the differing parties were to each nominate individuals for Chief and Tribal Council (four seats), from which the entirety of the tribe would cast ballots for those names.

“Mine was the only name submitted for nomination as Chief,” Brown said. “Likewise, the only names submitted as candidates for the Council were Wayne Melton, Margo Howard, Theresa Langston and Jerome James, and they were elected. The other side in this long legal battle did not submit any names as candidates for Chief or Council.”

Brown said the election, held at the Meherrin Tribal Grounds located on NC 11 between Ahoskie andMurfreesboro, attracted what he called “unprecedented numbers.”

Throughout the years of this Meherrin divide, both sides continued to hold tribal meetings with their respective councils.

“Some deemed this schism as a family feud, the Indian version of the Hatfields and McCoys,” Brown noted. “But what you must realize is that members of the opposing sides are cousins; we’re all one family and that’s what really hurt me personally during all this.”

The divide and ensuing legal battle began in 2007 in what Brown characterized as an effort by then Chief Thomas Lewis to change the Meherrin Tribe’s name to Meherrin-Chowanoke, without the consent of the people. Brown and others saw this as a violation of the Meherrin Constitution and By-Laws.

“Meherrin tribal members attended an official meeting in the October of 2007 and Lewis was officially charged for these violations,” Brown said. “An election was held in May of 2008 which resulted in my election as Chief. Former Chief Lewis and his council refused to step down and turn over the Tribe’s records and financial documents and the lawsuit was filed. The rest is now history.”

Since the election, Chief Brown has been diligently working to repair wounds that the split has left within the Tribe and the community.

“Healing among the Meherrin people is well underway, and old members who were once dis-enrolled under the former chief are coming home,” Brown noted. “Sadly, there is little hope for sealing the divisions with the former leadership.  In the days since the recent ruling and election they formed a splinter group of the same name which they attempted to use in 2007- the Meherrin-Chowanoke; one of the original charges against Mr. Lewis that resulted in the lawsuit and his removal from the office of Chief.”

According to Brown, the splinter group’s reasoning behind the name is flawed.

“If they used every historic tribe’s name that we have within our Meherrin blood lines, we could potentially be called the Meherrin-Saponi-Weopemeoc-Conestoga Tribe,” he stressed. “Using that brand of logic there would be no historic tribes left anywhere on this continent, they would all have to change their names.”

Brown produced several old maps he obtained from the state ofNorth Carolinathat he claimed proves beyond doubt that the historic Meherrin Nation never merged with the Chowanoke Indians. He said a 1676 war decimated the Chowanoke Nation.

“At that time the Meherrins were still at Cowinchohawkon on theMeherrinRiver, two miles south of present dayEmporia,VA,” Brown said. “Our Nation did not arrive here inNorth Carolinauntil around the 1690’s.  In 1705 we were placed on the first assigned Reservation inNorth Carolina, known as Maherrinneck, known today as Manley’s Neck here inHertfordCounty.”

Brown said in 1728 the reservation was expanded to include the old ‘Chowan (Chowanoke) fields’ and expanded again by the Treaty of March 4, 1729.  He added what few Chowanoke Indians that were left after the 1676 war were moved toBennettsCreekin what is nowGatesCounty.

“Furthermore, Meherrins are an Iroquois people and the Chowanokes were Algonquin,” Brown stated. “Let me make it perfectly clear, there is no such thing as a Meherrin-Chowanoke Tribe, there never was one in our past history nor is there one today.”

According to Chief Brown, the members of this splinter group do not represent the Meherrin people in any capacity and are not affiliated in any way with the Meherrin Tribe nor are they acknowledged by the Meherrin Government. Brown said that splinter group does not have local, state or federal recognition.

“The immediate task facing the Meherrin people is to heal their wounds and move forward,” Brown stressed.

Chief Brown is hoping to move forward in October when the Meherrin Nation will hold their 24th Annual Powwow – a festival with traditional dances, Iroquois social dances, and a smoke dance contest. All tribal members have been invited as well as the public – the perfect opportunity to celebrate a new found unity, and the Meherrins’ Iroquois roots.

For more information on the 24th Annual Meherrin Powwow and Smoke Dance Contest, visit www.meherrinnation.org.

About Cal Bryant

Cal Bryant, a 40-year veteran of the newspaper industry, serves as the Editor at Roanoke-Chowan Publications, publishers of the Roanoke-Chowan News-Herald, Gates County Index, and Front Porch Living magazine.

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