The Meherrin Indian Tribe are the only non-reservation Indians in North Carolina who still live on their original Reservation lands. They were recognized by the state of NC in 1986. The Meherrin Nation is one of eight state-recognized Nations of Native Americans in North Carolina. They reside in rural northeastern North Carolina, near the river of the same name on the Virginia-North Carolina border.
Official Tribal Name: Meherrin Nation
Address: P.O. Box 508, Winton, NC 27986
Official Website: www.obsn.org
Recognition Status: State Recognized
Traditional Name / Traditional Meaning:
Kauwets’a:ka (pronounced Gauwentch-AAga), meaning People of the Water
Common Name / Meaning of Common Name:
The Meherrin formerly lived along the Meherrin river. Today, Meherrin is the name of a small village in Southside Virginia.
Alternate names / Alternate spellings / Mispellings:
Cowonchahawkon, Cowinchehoccauk, Kauwetsaka, Kauwetseka, Kauwets’a:ka, Kauwetsaka, Kauwetseka, Akawěñtc’ākā’, Akawenchaka, Akawetsaka, Mangoak, Mangaog, Maharim, Maherin, Maherine, Mahering, Maherrin, Maherring, Maherron, Meherine, Meherins, Meheron, Meherries, Meherrin, Meherring, Meherrins, Meherron, Menchserink, Menderink, Mendoerink, Mendwrink, Menherring, Menheyricks, Meterries
Name in other languages:
Akawenc’aì:ka’ – Tuscarora word for the Meherrin Tribe.
State(s) Today: North Carolina
Oral history and archelogical evidence places the Meherrin ancestors in what is now North Carolina and Virgina at least 1,200 years ago. This was about the time that the ancestors of the Meherrin, Tuscarora, and Nottoway diverged from the core Proto-Iroquois group, also the common ancestors of the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Conestoga.
Originally inhabiting Piedmont Virginia above the fall line, the Meherrin moved south into North Carolina in the early 18th century to evade encroachment by Anglo-American colonists. Linguistic evidence indicates that the Meherrin share common ancestry with the Tuscarora and Nottoway, and likely spoke the same language or a similar dialect. Common origins are also indicated in Tuscarora oral history. By 1706 they had resettled on lands previously occupied by the Chowanoke near the mouth of the Meherrin River.
Confederacy: Iroquois – Tuscarora language expert Blair Rudes documented that the Tuscarora, Meherrin, and Nottoway comprised a North Carolina Iroquois League.
In 1711-1712, the Meherrin were allies of the Tuscarora during the Tuscarora War. After most of the Tuscarora left the colony, the Meherrin reservation was confirmed as theirs by treaty with the North Carolina colony in 1726.
The Nation’s residents principally reside in and around the Little California and Pleasant Plains and Union areas of Hertford County, North Carolina.
Tribal Headquarters: Ahoskie, NC
According to the Meherrin website, “The Seal of the Meherrin Nation is primarily made up of purple and white- the colors of wampum. Our people are standing in an unbroken circle; the ancestors, our people today, and future generations of Meherrin. All of the clan animals of the Meherrin Nation are present in the center of the circle. On the back of the Great Turtle, or Turtle Island (North America) stands the Tree of Peace, symbolizing our nation following the Great Binding Law set forth by Deganawida, the Peacemaker. The water surrounding the turtle symbolizes our name- Kauwets’a:ka (People of the Water).”
First European Contact:
Population at Contact:
Registered Population Today: About 900
Tribal Enrollment Requirements:
Meherrins remained in distinct communities through the 19th and 20th centuries, maintaining their own schools and churches. In 1975, Meherrin descendants reorganized the tribe and reclaimed its identity under Chief Wayne Brown. It became chartered in 1977 after increasing activism by members. They were recognized by the state in 1986. Many Meherrin can trace their ancestry to Sally M. Lewis (1838-1904), who sold several tracts of reservation land.
Name of Governing Body:
Number of Council members:
Dates of Constitutional amendments:
Number of Executive Officers:
Language Classification: Iroquoian
Language Dialects: Skaru:re is the Iroquois language that was spoken by the Tuscarora, Meherrin and Nottoway collectively. Ska:rù:rę is a Northern Iroquois language, closely related to those of the Five Nations.
Number of fluent Speakers: Few Meherrins speak Skaru:re today, but many tribal members are working hard to remember and learn the language.
The ancestral group of the Tuscarora, Meherrin and Nottoway broke away from the common ancestral group shared with the Haudenosaunee (Five Nations) about 1,200 to 2,000 years ago and migrated to what is now North Carolina and Virgina. Once there, they separated into three distinct nations, but remained politically united.
Bands, Gens, and Clans:
The Meherrin tribe traditionally had several clans at one time. It is unknown exaclty how many but many clans were shared with the Tuscarora and Nottoway. Today wtheyhave the Dawis Dawis (snipe, or plover) Clan, Rakwis (Turtle) Clan, Utsihreh (Bear) Clan, Thkwari:ne (Wolf) Clan, and the Tsunakę (Beaver) Clan. The clan you belong to is inherited through the matriarchial line. In other words, clans are extended families and are inherited from the mother.
When clans and nations grew too large, they would split and move to new hunting grounds, or farm lands. This explains how the Iroquois nations divided from a single Proto-Iroquoian ancestral group.
The clan system is central to Meherrin Culture. Each Clan has specific ceremonies, and clans determine who assumes a leadership role, are decision-makers, and even who they can marry.
The leader of each clan is an elder women who is chosen based on the clan of her birth and her leadership qualities.
A long time ago, Meherrins often intermarried with people from the other Iroquois nations, but from a different clan. Meherrin people often lived among other Iroquiois people through marriage and clan relationships. Also, Tuscarora and “Seneca” (used by colonists to refer to any one of the Five Nations) were often mentioned among the Meherrin. Your clan is seen as your extended family even if members are from another nation.
It is likely that the group of Meherrin who resided with the Tuscarora in 1781, were the one’s who moved north with them to New York and Ontario.
While many of the clan practices have disappeared, the clan designations were passed down through oral and written history. With the return of Iroquois traditions to the Meherrin people, the role of clans has become more important. This was also the case in other Iroquios nations including the Tuscarora in New York, as well as Oneidas and Mohawks. You will often see Meherrin people wearing symbols of their clans incorporated into their ceremonial regalia.
Related Tribes: The Meherrins are related to the Tuscarora, who were a neighboring tribe in historic times that migrated north to New York in the early 18th century, and the nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, historically based in New York.
The six family (of Iroquois) made resident near the mouth of Neuse river, in North Carolina, and became three tribes, the Kautanohakau, Kauwetseka, and Tuscarora, and united into a league. The Tuscarora, Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca made up the larger Iroqois League.
The Meherrin people were taken under the protection of the Haudenosaunee (Five Nations/ Iroquois Confederacy) in 1712, along with the Tuscarora and Tutelo. Some Meherrin decendents reside among the Tuscarora in New York and on the Six Nations Reserve in Canada. However, the Meherrin who have remained in North Carolina maintain an independant tribal entity.
They were at war with the Nanticokes.
Ceremonies / Dances:
Kayanashakowa – The Great Law of Peace
The Meherrin Nation was taken under the protection of the Six Nations after 1712. This is in accordance with the Great Law of Peace, the binding constitution of the Five Nations- Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. The Tuscarora were taken in as a sixth nation, without voting rights on the council of cheifs. Many other nations have been taken into the Confederacy, including the North Carolina Tutelos and Yeopim among others. Some estimates place this pact at being 1,000 years old. We do know that it was well established before Europeans arrived on Turtle Island.
The Kayanashakowa tells how to live in accordance with Creator’s original instructions, and how to treat others in and outside of the nations and clans. It is their form of government- the longest surviving democracy in the world!
In 2009 a Kayanashakowa Review (Great Law Review) was led by Onondaga Wolf Clan Chief Billy Lazore and Mike Jock (Kanaratanoron) of the Mohawk Nation. The entire Kayanashakowa was recited to the Meherrin people over the course of ten days, as tradition calls for. This Review of the Kayanashakowa signified the Meherrin Nation’s reaffirmed commitment to their Iroquois traditions.
The Meherrin Lunar Calendar and the Cycle of Ceremonies
The first day of each moon is marked by the New Moon. This calendar outlines each festival or ceremony for each Moon, as part of the Meherrin Cycle of Ceremonies and Thanksgiving.
1. Katarhwat Hihté-čreh – “Spirit of the North Wind” Moon
All Night Dance for the Dead
2. Ku:na Ka:ti:’i’i Hihté-čreh – Turkeys Gobble Moon
3. Run’kau’t Hihté-čreh – Dogwood Blooms Moon
4. A’nha Hihté-čreh – Herring Moon
5. Wisęt Hihté-čreh – Strawberry Moon
Strawberry Ceremony and Medicine Masks Cleansing
6. Či-ahyets-tsuhye-ts Hihté-čreh – Mulberry “again its berries are long” Moon
7. Nęhru Hihté-čreh – Tulip Poplar “White Wood Tree” Moon
8. Utyú-tsreh Hihté-čreh – Green Corn Moon
Green Corn Festival
9. Yęthwaku Hihté-čreh – Harvest Moon
Harvest Festival and Tobacco Dance
10. Rahthękye Hihté-čreh – Autumn Moon
11. Withrę Hihté-čreh – Frost Moon
Final Harvest Festival and Medicine Masks Cleansing
12. Tsunakę Hihté-čreh – Beaver Moon
13. Kuhsér’ihę Hihté-čreh – Midwinter Moon
Songs and Dances
Meherrin people include smoke dance and Iroquois social dances in their gatherings. These are sometimes open to the public and include the Standing Quiver, Stomp Dances, Old Moccasin Dance, Fish Dance, Round Dance, Alligator Dance, and the Stick or Skin Dance, among many more. Musical instruments include the water drum, horn rattles and turtle rattles in ceremonies. They have more sacred dances that are only done in private, that are not open to the public.
Modern Day Events & Tourism:
An annual pow wow that is open to the public is held the first weekend in October each year on the Meherrin Tribal Grounds.
Legends / Oral Stories:
Art & Crafts:
Archaeologists confirm that the ancestors of the Meherrin were living in the NC/ VA region by 1,000 AD. The pottery style shared by them and other North Carolina Iroquois people is labeled as Cashie, and gives an umbrella name for their culture and way of life.
Chu-teche, (wampum) is important to the Meherrins, as it is to most Eastern Native American people. It is made from the shells of clams and whelks. The stunning purple and white shells are made into beads and used on jewelry, as well as the famous wampum belts. Wampum was once used in treaty belts (such as those pictured below left), and as currency among Indian people. Wampum is still very valuable to them today. It is used in ceremonies and even burried with Meherrin and other Iroquois peoples.
Meherrins, like other Iroquois people lived in longhouses. These homes were noted as being weather-proof and very spacious. Longhouses were made of strong materials- wood and thick bark for the walls and roof. The inside had shelves and beds along the side, and one or more fires down the center. Several families might have lived in one extended longhouse, but they almost always were part of the same clan. Today longhouses are used for cermonies.
Meherrin towns were not usually fortified with tall stockades like those of other Iroquois.
Archaeological evidence indicates the Cashie people/ Meherrin grew corn and beans. They also ate hickory nuts, turkey, deer, raccoon, bear, possum, rabbit as well as fish, turtle, and mussels.
Tribal members work in a wide variety of professional fields, as a high proportion of the tribe have college degrees compared to the general population in the county.
Religion & Spiritual Beliefs:
Cashie/ Meherrin people buried their dead in ossuaries (shared graves) made up of 2-5 family/ clan members. The Cashie buried jewelry and tools such as awls and jewelry in the graves.
Clan rules forbade marrying someone within your own clan. The Meherrin often intermarried with other Iroquois tribes.
Meherrin Chiefs & Famous People:
The following series of events have been passed down through Iroquois oral history and shared by the late Ray Fadden (Mohawk).
“Iroquois oral history tells of “a great mountain range that was toward the setting sun and a great body of water on the other side of the mountains (the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Ocean).” The stories talk about open, “grassy plains” countless buffalo that migrated across them and left the ground “like a desert because they ate the grass to the earth.”
“The people made it to a “great river that leads to two other rivers that went east and west.” This was likely the confluence of the Missouri, Mississippi and Ohio rivers. The main body of Iroquois travelled east, up the Ohio River.”
“We encountered a “people who made friends with wild dogs and made them work for them.” Likely the Pawnee people who had domesticated wolves. The Pawnee also claim they were friends and allies with the Iroquois and at one time lived in the south near what is today Mexico.”
“After a long stay in what is now the Ohio valley, they decided to split up, as was their custom to do whenever a hunting ground became too thickly populated to feed all the people.” It was here that a large separation occurred; possibly the Cherokees moved to the south at this point. Linguistic and archeological evidence supports the Cherokee breaking off much sooner than the other Iroquois nations separated from each other. The larger group of Iroquois (ancestors of the Five Nations and the Tuscarora, Meherrin and Nottoway) continued to migrate up the Ohio River toward the Great Lakes. They eventually settled and spread throughout the region. As bands grew larger they would divide and separate to make use of resources.”
Linguistics experts and archaeologists independently support Tuscarora oral history. The ancestors of all Iroquois-speaking people- the Proto-Iroquoians, broke into two groups- the Proto-Northern Iroquois and the Cherokee ancestral group, about 4,000 years ago. The Proto-Northern Iroquoian group split again about 1,000 to 2,000 years ago, based upon linguistic/ lexical exidence. This group, the ancestors of the Tuscaroras, Nottoways, and Meherrins, eventually settled in eastern North Carolina and Virginia.
In the News: