UMW course preserves Native American stories
John Blankenship’s passion for historic preservation is personal. A member of Virginia’s Patawomeck Indian Tribe, he’s always been interested in learning about his family tree and the roots his ancestors laid along the Potomac River.
“Since I was young, I’ve wanted to ensure that the people and events of the past are remembered,” he said, “and that their stories are told accurately.”
Blankenship is getting that chance in University of Mary Washington Assistant Professor Lauren McMillan’s Preservation in the Community course. During November’s National Native American Heritage Month, UMW juniors and seniors enrolled in this historic preservation seminar are collaborating with the Patawomeck and Rappahannock tribes to create a driving trail that honors their past and present.
McMillan, who has partnered with the tribes on archaeological excavation projects for previous courses, said their work has the potential to put the region on the map as a destination for those who wish to learn more about indigenous history and culture.
“Most Americans know about Pocahontas and the Trail of Tears but have little understanding of the longer history of these tribes,” said McMillan, citing the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which once barred Virginia residents from claiming indigenous heritage. “With projects like this, we aim to rectify years of Native American erasure while highlighting contemporary tribal communities still active and vibrant in our region.”
G. Anne Richardson, longtime chief of the Rappahannock Tribe, echoes those sentiments. “These places have been lost to us for more than 350 years,” she said. “It’s invaluable to be able to tell a more complete history of our tribe’s impact on this land.”
The class conducted extensive research, zeroing in on several narratives key to the tribes, such as the use of river resources over thousands of years and modern fishing practices. Other topics include long-distance trade routes, and traditions and stories passed down through generations of descendants, many of whom have made their home in King George, Stafford and neighboring counties.
After consulting archives, archaeological reports and oral histories, students are creating brief summaries for seven interpretive signs, using design principles they learned from Fredericksburg graphic artist Pete Morelewicz.
Drew Gruber ’08, executive director of the nonprofit Civil War Trails, shared his expertise on heritage tourism marketing with the class. “It’s important that they see the opportunities available to historic preservation graduates,” McMillan said. “They’re gaining real-world skills they can transfer to a career.”
Senior Samantha Melvin, who will give a presentation on the finished product at the Middle Atlantic Archaeology Conference this spring, hopes the work will lead to more collaboration among the tribes, municipalities and Mary Washington.
That’s the plan, said Nick Minor, executive director of King George’s Department of Economic Development and Tourism. He envisions a regional driving trail spanning not only King George but into the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. The tribes will have an active role in choosing sites and shaping narratives, he said, as well as determining the direction of the campaign’s branding and aesthetics.
“The Patawomeck and Rappahannock tribes already do a wonderful job sharing their history,” Minor said. “At the end of the day, it’s their stories and heritage. We’re just lucky to have the privilege to help them tell people about it.”