Journey to the Past: Victoria Ferguson dedicated to keeping her heritage alive

Every journey begins with a single step.

With each step the modern world slowly melts away and you are transported to another time. You become more aware of the world around you. The dampness and chill in the air. The sound of a babbling creek as it trickles over rocks and tiny waterfalls alongside a rocky path carved through the forest. Birds sing and trees sway to the songs of the breeze.

Overhead, high above the treetops and rocky cliffs, lies an enormous stone arch resting more than 200 feet in the air. The rocks forming this magnificent structure are more than 500 million years old. The ancient site, sacred to the local Monacan Indian tribe, is called Mohomony, or “Bridge of God.” Accompanying the giant stone archway is a tale of survival and belief. The story of Natural Bridge has been passed down for generations.

Just beyond the bridge you happen upon a village carved out of the woodlands. Massive huts and shelters weaved in cattails dot the landscape, surrounded by a wooden palisade. The distinct smell of campfire fills the air as men and women in traditional Native American garments walk the leaf-covered forest floor. Furs hang from shelter openings and crops are growing in a small garden. A school-aged child can be seen learning to weave a rope, while a family of four begins preparations for a feast.

This is life in the Monacan Living History Exhibit at Natural Bridge State Park, an outdoor museum dedicated to preserving the way of life of the Monacan Indian people. Over 20 years of research and thousands of hours of labor have gone into this authentically reproduced exhibit using regional archaeology, ethno history, primitive technology, and oral-traditions passed down from the Monacan people. It is estimated that more than 100,000 visitors pass through the village each year from April to November.

And behind this labor of love is Victoria Ferguson. Ferguson is a tribal member of the Monacan people and helped create the village with her husband in 1999. Last year, the exhibit celebrated its 20th season welcoming guests of the park.

“After spending two years volunteering at the native site at Virginia’s Explore Park, our tribe was contacted by Natural Bridge and wanted to talk about developing an interpretive program there. My husband and I presented the proposal in July of 1999 and it was accepted. Building began in November of that year and the site opened in April of 2000,” said Ferguson, who began that first year as a volunteer in the village before eventually taking over as manager of the exhibit in 2014. “I am responsible for the authentically reproduced structures such as wigwams, long houses, and palisade. Under my direction, we plant heirloom crops in the same manner I was taught as a child. I share knowledge about the many wild plants we use and sometimes share stories documented in my family.

“We interact with more the 100,000 visitors each year. The most important thing that we do is we are preserving aboriginal knowledge for our people and we are fighting to protect the lands of our ancestors from destruction. You can’t put a price tag on that. The program has allowed young Monacans to participate in a part of the culture and heritage because they are our future.”

The exhibit helps bridge the gap between cultures and generations by bringing to light the ways of the Monacan people. From interactive presentations on shelter construction, mat and rope weaving, tool-making, gardening, harvesting, preparing meals and making pots, bowls and baskets, guests are transported over 300 years into the past to experience life in a typical Monacan settlement. Each day employees dress in native garbs and teach families, schoolchildren and visitors the way of the Monacan Indian Nation, a federally recognized tribe based today in Amherst County whose ancestors lived in Virginia up to 10,000 years ago. The exhibit is a partnership between the Monacan Indian Nation, Virginia Conservation Legacy Fund, and Virginia State Parks.

And the village is a short walk from Natural Bridge, which holds a special place in Monacan culture.

“My husband and I answered the call to be a part of this project by developing a proposal and sticking with it. It is a job that requires passion and a lot of research and documentation. We have walked this road together for 20 years,” Ferguson said. “Over the years we have had many people who have worked at the site and we have had some wonderful volunteers. I know many people have heard the saying, ‘it takes a village.’ In this particular instance, it takes a lot of people to get the work done. Like cutting 38,000 cattails to cover a wigwam – you do not do this by yourself. It takes people with passion.”

And passion is something that flows in abundance from Ferguson.

Growing up in Beckley, West Virginia, Ferguson felt from an early age that she was not like the other kids in her school. As a child, Ferguson dealt with segregation and felt distanced from her classmates. And because of that, throughout much of her life Ferguson was among the first in her family to achieve certain milestones in her schools and in her community.

“Segregation and integration seems like it was so long ago, but it happened in my lifetime,” Ferguson said. “When I first started school they were still segregated in my community. Once schools were integrated, it did not mean equal access to all programs. For many people of color, we watched as people were passed over for positions as cheerleaders, majorettes, and so on. I was used to being the first person of color to serve in various roles.

“In the state of Virginia, where my parents are from and my tribe is located, the government passed laws to prevent Virginia Indians from legally claiming their identity. My family lived culturally as natives in the way we survived. I always considered myself as native and any accomplishment I made I felt would be positive for us all.”

One of those accomplishments in which Ferguson is most proud is being the first in her family to attend and graduate from college when she earned a degree from Marshall University in 1980. During her time in Huntington, she also celebrated another first as one of the first American Indians to serve as a majorette with the Marching Thunder.

“I was the first in my family to have the opportunity to go to college and I had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into,” Ferguson said with a laugh. “The one thing I did know is I had the opportunity to spend four years – and only four years – to complete my degree as there was no money available after that. So I rode the Greyhound bus back and forth with many other high school classmates who also went to Marshall.

“The thing I learned (at Marshall) is how important a can do attitude is. I learned how important it was to push forward, no matter what. I was so happy to be a part of the majorette squad. There is a certain feeling you get when you stand at the end of the football field and twirl to your fight song.”

After graduation, Ferguson held several jobs in the region before finding a home in Roanoke, Virginia. Once back in Virginia, she was able to get more involved with her local tribe and historical preservation.

“I realized I was one of the few people in my tribe, of my age group, who had been able to go to college,” Ferguson said. “My volunteer work at a local Historical Native Site became my passion. I started to look for written documentation to support the oral traditions taught in my family. There, I realized the importance of protecting and preserving the culture.”

And it is that dedication to preserving her culture that drives her today.

While much of the history of Native Americans in this country has been edited or told through differing viewpoints, Ferguson is determined to keep alive the story of her ancestors by teaching future generations about the Monacan people directly from the source.

“No one should take away a person’s right to tell their own story,” Ferguson said. “For us as native people, to be able to tell our history the way we want is so important. I don’t understand why so many people think they can take ownership of our history.

“A question I ask when I am giving a presentation is, ‘can you imagine the National Museum of African American History and Culture being developed without any input from African Americans?’ We allow people to do this to Native Americans. Having programs like the one at Natural Bridge allows us as Monacan people to tell our own history in a way we want it presented.

“We tell it from the heart. The knowledge we keep and share is important.”

Today, Ferguson uses the lessons learned at an early age and the stories shared by her family as a focal point for her work.

One of those earliest memories was when her father introduced her to planting corn, now a part of the daily stories she shares with young people at the exhibit.

“After the rows were laid out, my father took a stick and walked down the rows placing holes in the ground at the depth and space needed for the corn seeds. My first job as a 5-year-old was to place a cup of water in each hole. A sibling then came behind me and dropped three seeds in the hole and another covered them up,” Ferguson said. “It was then I learned the importance of water. I learned a lot about plants, how to sew, how to cook, how to preserve food. My parents both knew plants and their usage.

“The important part today is for my sons to learn the history and pass it on. I have seen other young people at the exhibit learn and retain the information as well. That is important for our future. For us as a people, we spent years fighting with the government for our right to self-identify as natives. We were fortunate as our governors in the state of Virginia supported us and finally the federal government recognized the Virginia tribes. You have no idea how good it feels to be able to say to people, ‘we are still here.’”

Away from the exhibit, Ferguson continues to explore more about her culture and share that knowledge with others around the world. She has been a feature speaker at numerous conferences on the subject, as well as working with universities in presenting class work, serving on archaeological digs to help repatriate human tribal remains and has even participated in multiple documentaries for PBS.

She has also written numerous papers, a children’s book entitled “Dark Moon to Rising Sun” and is currently working with another Marshall graduate on a play about the Monacan people.

And Ferguson does all of this alongside of her husband and two sons who accompany her for much of the experience and even participate when they can, dancing in powwows and creating their own authentic artifacts in the Monacan tradition.

“For the past 25 years of my life, I have tried to bridge the information from our native perspective to the general population. I have fought for equal rights for people of color since the first time I asked if I was a person of color who could be a cheerleader back in grade school,” Ferguson said. “Today, I still put myself on the front line of fights for indigenous people, for protection of the land and what lays beneath and for the injustices done to people of color and poor people in general.”

And through it all, Ferguson carries with her that she is a proud daughter of Marshall and loves to share that story alongside her daily fight to preserve her culture and teach others the way of her ancestors.

“There is a lot to love about what I do, from growing seeds handed down for hundreds of years, to showing people how to make rope. But for me, to be able to dig from Mother Earth and turn that soil into pottery using the same process my ancestors used, that is something special,” Ferguson said. “My work is known and recognized by many people in universities in Virginia and, where I go, I carry the fact that I am a graduate of Marshall University with me. I am very proud of that fact and have included the Marshall symbol in the bead work of my dance regalia. I have told my family that I want that regalia to go to Marshall at my death.”