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Williams: Remembering a fierce advocate in preserving Native American culture
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Karenne Wood

Williams: Remembering a fierce advocate in preserving Native American culture

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Karenne Wood was appalled to learn that Virginia Indians were referred to strictly in the past tense in the state’s Standards of Learning.

That modern-day attempt at erasure had an unhappy precedent. White supremacist Walter Ashby Plecker, registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, had sought to classify Virginia Indians out of existence through the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

Wood — a scholar, advocate and member of the Amherst County-based Monacan Indian Nation — refused to let this renewed marginalization stand. She was pivotal in updating the standards to reflect the role of indigenous people in Virginia’s present and future.

“She was an advocate for making people know what that history was, but also for reminding people that Virginia Indians are still here,” said Matthew Gibson, executive director of Virginia Humanities. Her work as the first director of Virginia Indian Programs secured for Virginia Humanities the highest of honors — the 2009 Schwartz Prize from the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

Wood, a resident of Kents Store in Louisa County, died Sunday after a long illness. She was 59.

Her wisdom, authority and authenticity made her my first choice in understanding Virginia Indian issues. I wasn’t alone.

Wood was an anthropologist, a vital source of information and a conduit to grant resources to preserve native culture and the raw historical materials needed to secure federal recognition for Virginia tribes.

But mainly, the soft-spoken Wood — an accomplished wordsmith and published poet — was a fierce champion in preserving and highlighting native people’s stories and traditions.

Her tireless efforts were recognized in 2015, when she was honored as a notable “Virginia Women in History” by the Library of Virginia.

“She always said she was standing on the shoulders of her ancestors and she was not doing this work alone,” said David Bearinger, director of grants and community programs at Virginia Humanities.

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“She was absolutely committed to telling the story in the right way, and empowering other people to tell the story in the right way.”

Wood, a Washington, D.C. native, earned bachelor’s and master of fine arts degrees from George Mason University and a doctorate from the University of Virginia.

Before joining Virginia Humanities, she was the repatriation coordinator for the Association on American Indian Affairs, traveling around the country negotiating for the return of sacred objects to native communities. She was a research fellow at the National Museum of the American Indian before it opened in 2004, working on the exhibit “Return to a Native Place: Algonquin Peoples of the Chesapeake.”

Virginia Humanities first encountered Wood through grants it administered to the Monacan Indian Nation.

“Karenne worked many years tirelessly and endlessly for the Monacan people and all the tribes of native people in Virginia and across the country,” said Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham. “I can’t imagine us being able to make it through some of the years if it hadn’t been for her grant writing allowing us to keep the doors open.”

Her non-grant writing included the 2001 book “Markings on Earth,” which won the Diane Decorah Award for Poetry from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, and “Weaving the Boundary” (2016). Her poetry graces various Native American anthologies.

Then-Gov. Mark Warner appointed her to the Virginia Council on Indians, which she would chair. In 2004, she became the first Virginia Indian to sit on the board of Virginia Humanites, before becoming its first head of Indian Programs.

“She was a strong woman. She didn’t make a lot of noise. She wasn’t meek either,” said her friend, Powhatan Red Cloud Owen, a Charles City County resident and member of the Chickahominy Tribe.

Describing her feelings, he said: “We’re not your automobiles, we’re not your sports teams, we’re not someone for you to whoop and holler about.”

“ ‘We need to have our story told,’ she would say,” Owen recalled. “Believe me, she was telling it.”

Wood is survived by her mother, Gwendolyn Rivett-Olsen of Richmond; her brother, Keith Wood of Richmond; and two daughters, Adrienne Brown of Harrisonburg and Emily Oden of Richmond. A memorial service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Virginia chapel. Her ashes will be spread on Bear Mountain in Amherst.

“I don’t think she can be replaced,” Bearinger said. “But I think she’s created a platform for people to build on what she did. And I am sure — I’m absolutely sure — there are tens if not hundreds of thousands of people in Virginia today of all ages and all backgrounds who understand much better the importance of native people in the commonwealth because of Karenne’s work.”

mwilliams@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6815

Twitter: @RTDMPW

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