Sharon Bryant, the first female chief of the Monacan Indian Nation in Amherst County, was a bear of a woman. Indeed, her tribal name was “Bear Woman,” and she cared as deeply for her people and their heritage as a mother bear would for her cubs.
Not even a month ago, she was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer and given a grim prognosis.
Tuesday morning, with her family and friends by her side, Chief Bryant passed away at the age of 54. She was elected chief in 2011 and was looking forward to a second term that would have begun this month had not cancer struck her down.
A lifelong resident of Amherst County, the Monacan tribe was her world, and she would have done anything for it.
The Monacans have had a long, troubled history in Amherst County and in Virginia. Discriminated against as viciously as African-Americans, the tribe’s members have always been a community unto themselves, mostly residing in the Bear Mountain area of the county near the St. Paul Mission Church.
Their identity was almost wiped out — literally — by Dr. Walter Plecker, Virginia’s first registrar of the Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. Plecker was a virulent racist and, among other things, didn’t believe the Monacan — or any other member of a Virginia Indian tribe — existed as a “real” people. Birth records for three and a half decades simply described them as “colored,” yet another indignity heaped upon this ancient people.
Plecker’s infamous legacy, in a fascinating turn of history, fueled a revival of tribal culture in later years. And it also motivated Bryant in the great quest for federal recognition of Virginia’s first tribes during her term as chief and even before.
Because of Plecker’s altered birth records, the federal government has refused to grant official recognition to the Monacans, a move that would open up a flood of social and economic resources. Only an act of Congress could do that.
Chief Bryant and other Indian leaders have been working with Virginia’s congressional delegation for years to gain that recognition. In that fight, Sen. Tim Kaine got to know Bryant back when he was governor and counted her as a friend.
“I am deeply saddened to hear of Chief Bryant’s passing. Bryant was a strong leader for the Monacan people and a pioneer for women,” the senator said. “Her death is a loss to the entire Commonwealth of Virginia, and my heart goes out to the Monacan Nation during this time of mourning.”
Today, with legislation to recognize Virginia’s tribes in political limbo, we hope Congress will take note of this special woman from Amherst County and do their duty by the Monacans and others. We have the perfect name for the bill: The Chief Sharon Bryant Tribal Recognition Act of 2015.
Embrace the Spirit