A remarkable woman

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 14, 2008

She was a woman ahead of her time.

In the 17th century, women in general were told to know their place, and that place was far from the forefront.

But Edna Turner had other ideas. Turner was chief of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indians, and was also known by her tribal name, Wan/ Roonseraw.

In 1821, Turner petitioned the Virginia General Assembly for the right to divide the reservation among individual members, moving them away from a communal lifestyle that was failing the tribe.

“It is found to be impossible to divide a common crop, made by a number of persons of various powers, and different Wills, so as to give to each a share strictly proportioned to the part taken in the labour performed, and in consequence of long continued dissatisfaction on that head, at length no crop at all is made,” her petition read.

The groundbreaking 19th-century Native American chief of the Southampton County tribe is one of eight women whose lives are celebrated in a new traveling exhibition organized by the Library of Virginia.

She was one of the last tribal members to speak the Iroquoian language, and she is credited in 1820 with providing a College of William & Mary scholar with a vocabulary of Cheroenhaka words that ultimately wound up in the hands of Thomas Jefferson and is now held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Today that vocabulary list is the only existing reproduction of the long-dead Iroquoian language.

Turner was the only Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) of her time to write a will, a document that still can be found at the Southampton County courthouse.

A remarkable woman, indeed.