A Proud Legacy

Virginia is home to 11 state-recognized Indian tribes that are working to pass their rich culture to the next generation.

Deep in Charles City County sits a nondescript crossroads that’s easy to miss even if you’re looking for it. Tucked between fields of corn and stands of old timber is a low-slung, cinder block building, a church and cemetery. Though quiet, this corner is the cultural core for hundreds of Chickahominy Indians who are proud to call this home. This is the land of their ancestors.

Most Virginians have little notion of how many Indians live among them. There are more than 900 Chickahominy people on tribal rolls, and in all about 5,000 members of the 11 Virginia tribes officially recognized by the state government: Cheroenhaka Nottoway, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi. The Commonwealth is also home to two of the oldest reservations in the nation: the 1,200-acre Pamunkey Reservation, population 80, and the 150-acre Mattaponi Reservation, population 75, both in King William County and established around 1646.

Today, many of Virginia’s Indians are working hard, through both longstanding traditions and modern initiatives, to make sure their native legacy remains as strong in Virginia as it has been for the 10,000 years their people have lived here.

Wayne Adkins, 59, is one of the Chickahominy tribe’s two assistant chiefs and an elected member of the 12-member tribal council. Adkins is a soft-spoken man, a retired electrical engineer and a UVA grad who lives about 20 minutes from the Chickahominy Tribal Center, where retirees gather to socialize at the monthly Elders’ Day Luncheon. A little before noon on a quiet, spring Wednesday morning, seniors trickle into the building’s well-used meeting hall, which volunteers have already prepared with long folding tables and chairs. The elders greet each other warmly and share lighthearted small talk. They welcome me and ply me with hearty helpings of fried chicken as I watch a game of bingo, which is punctuated by shouted wisecracks. It’s the kind of informal get-together that might be found in any corner of America.

But when Adkins and another tribal elder, retired truck driver and Vietnam War veteran Glenn Canaday, walk me across the street to show off the tidy interior of Samaria Baptist Church—part of which was once used as a segregated Indian school—I begin to understand the importance of this crossroads.

Fellowship—both secular and religious—has long been a hallmark of Virginia Indians’ cultural life. Chickahominy people of all ages come to this rural intersection not only for regular Sunday services but also for wedding receptions, birthday parties and cultural education classes. Here, too, every September, on a baseball field behind the center, the tribe holds what is reputedly the oldest continuous powwow in Virginia, dating to 1951.

“Powwows are a chance for Indians to gather, socialize and educate people,” Adkins tells me. Also, he says, powwows “are an important fundraiser for the tribes because most charge admission or ask for donations and run the concessions. But that’s just part of the larger event. It just so happens that we make some money, but we would have them even if we didn’t because they’re so important from a social perspective.” These inter-tribal festivals are found around the U.S.; about a dozen are held in Virginia annually. Most tribes in the Commonwealth, though not all, host a powwow, and they’re open to the general public.

At a powwow hosted by the Mattaponi tribe in King William County, I get a feel for ceremonial Indian culture—a modern expression of customs that stretch back ages. Dozens of Indians and their families are clad in all manner of eclectic regalia; some in bright, modern neon, others in more muted buckskins and moccasins. Most are glad to pose for pictures and explain elements of their attire. It’s a welcoming and festive atmosphere. Indian men sit around broad drums and beat steady rhythms. They chant haunting songs and make music that seems to give life and a pulse to the gathering. Center stage is the dance circle, a roped-off area around which participants and spectators sit in folding camp chairs. At the emcee’s direction, Indians of all tribes enter the circle for ceremonial dances; one for tribal chiefs, for instance, and another honoring veterans. Children as young as eight or 10 years old are included among the dancers and seem as expert as Indians many times their age. The crowd looks toward the dancers with respectful attentiveness, though many softly carry on with their conversations. There’s no applause, but the attention afforded the performers shows the reverence onlookers have for the craft unfolding before them. Most of the dances are the same as those performed at other powwows, giving Indians of different tribes a chance to move in lock step with one another; a show of inter-tribal unity.

Jesse Bass, a gregarious 29-year-old Nansemond Indian and Norfolk resident, is on the rim of the dance circle. He is dressed sharply in full regalia that includes a bone breastplate, a choker and a circular shield of 40 feathers on his back called a bustle. It’s tough to tell by looks alone that Bass is descended from Virginia’s earliest inhabitants; he’s a redhead, a trait he attributes to his mother’s Irish heritage. “This is what 400 years of mixing with everybody else looks like,” says Bass. “When I was younger, no one believed me because I didn’t have ‘the look.’ The Virginia Indian of today isn’t always who people think it is.”   

Bass, a service and sales representative for a document management firm, sits on the Nansemond tribal council. He’s the son of Chief Barry Bass, who was elected to the tribe’s top position in 1996. Although each Virginia tribe is different, most have a volunteer council elected by tribe members. The council maintains and enforces a tribe’s bylaws and coordinates initiatives important to its members. The Nansemond tribal council, for example, is currently overseeing negotiations with Suffolk officials for the transfer of as many as 99 acres from the city to the tribe, which the Indians plan to use for a burial ground, historic village and tribal center called Mattanock Town. Nansemonds currently meet in Chesapeake at Indiana United Methodist Church, the longtime home parish of many members of the tribe and a church that served years ago as a school for young Indians.

Although Bass takes great pride in being an Indian, he concedes that it can be disheartening at times. Bass explains that there are several hundred Nansemonds on the tribal rolls, but thousands more, he believes, can trace their lineage to this Suffolk-based tribe: “It’s disappointing that so much of your family doesn’t know about their own culture. I think society plays a very large part in that. Everything is quick, and people are very impatient. That’s the world we live in. But native culture is the exact opposite of that. Unfortunately, some people don’t find a need to have that heritage remain a part of their life.”

To remedy that apathy, Bass hosts an Indian culture night, which meets monthly in his living room or, weather permitting, in his backyard. It’s an eclectic group made up of not just Nansemonds, but also other Indians who happen to be stationed at nearby military bases. Bass’ focus now is mostly on native music, and he keeps a large drum at home to provide the rhythm, but he would like to expand the scope to include dancing, crafts and folklore. “I got the idea from a buddy of mine who began teaching young children of his tribe stories and dances,” explains Bass. “It scares me that one day huge parts of the culture could be lost,” like the languages of Virginia’s native people, most of which have long since become extinct, replaced by English as Indians adapted to what was, for a long time, forced acculturation.

Bass is just one of dozens of younger-generation Virginia Indians working to preserve their native heritage. At the Mattaponi powwow, I meet two young women who take pride that they are descended from the first Virginians. Stormie Adkins, a 21-year-old nurse at a family practice in New Kent County, can often be found at powwows with her friend and fellow Chickahominy Indian Meagan Sakiewicz, the 26-year-old deputy clerk of Charles City Circuit Court. Sakiewicz explains what draws her and young Indian adults to powwows. “I love to hear the drumming and see the dancing and the coming together of our native people,” she says. “It’s almost like a homecoming … a way of keeping our traditions alive in a modern world.”

Powwows are perhaps the most familiar of Indian traditions, but they are just one way that Virginia’s Indian tribes maintain their culture, as I discover on a visit to the Pamunkey Indian Reservation.

Very much a modern rural community, the reservation sits on 1,200 expansive acres on an oxbow in the Pamunkey River, amid the idyllic scenery of King William County’s countryside; it is home for about 80 Pamunkeys and some non-Indian spouses. Unlike many western Indian reservations that are plagued by infertile land and crippling poverty, there are vast fields of healthy corn and soybeans whose yield brings income for the Indians living on the reservation. Pamunkey men fish for shad in the spring, and they maintain a fish hatchery on site. They receive funds from corporate donations and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to release shad fry back into the river. Along the waterfront, there are colorful and well-kept river houses. There’s a lot of space between the 38 houses, which vary widely in age and style, from sleek and contemporary to settled and timeworn.

Chief Kevin Brown meets me in a bright conference room just off the main gallery of the Pamunkey Indian Museum. The tribe opened the museum in 1979 with grant money from the federal government. (Though the tribe is not recognized by the federal government, it may apply for grants in the same way other communities and constituencies do.) The museum is maintained through donations and a modest admission fee that allows visitors access to the small gallery’s collections of stone tools, arrowheads and pottery, many of which were found on the reservation and made by Pamunkeys thousands of years ago.

Brown, 57 and semi-retired, is in a rush, preparing for a tribal meeting that evening. Straightforward and impassive, he is a former bricklayer and construction worker for contractors in Richmond and Williamsburg and, as he puts it, a starving artist who made pottery on the days that inclement weather kept him indoors. Brown was elected to a four-year term in 2008. Like all Virginia Indian chiefs, his position is part time and voluntary. He came to the reservation in 1972, after high school, to live with his grandfather.  

Even though many Pamunkeys move away from the reservation, Brown is encouraged that younger Indians are showing increasing interest in preserving their culture. According to Brown, five young adults have recently joined the reorganized Pamunkey Pottery and Crafts Guild, which has regular meetings during which the tribe’s elders share their knowledge of the intricate techniques used to craft native art and jewelry. After becoming chief, Brown began organizing cultural workshops, inviting visiting craftspeople to teach classes on basket making, beadwork and traditional singing, among other things. For more than a decade, this type of education wasn’t offered on the reservation because the number of Pamunkeys interested in learning these skills had waned. Brown learned pottery when he was young and credits this education with sparking his interest in pottery as an adult. Brown, who has one son and four stepchildren and whose wife is not Indian, is optimistic that, despite the allure of greener pastures elsewhere, efforts like these will help pass on Pamunkey culture to the next generation.

The Mattaponi reservation, which sits on the banks of the river named for the tribe, is similar to the Pamunkey reservation, though it comprises just 150 acres. Although both of their reservations are more than three centuries old, the tribes are not recognized by the federal government. They are recognized only by the Commonwealth of Virginia, though they do not receive any state funding. These tribes have never had a formal relationship with the U.S. because they predate its establishment: All the government-to-government treaties the tribes signed were with representatives of the English Crown. Then, because states were responsible for day-to-day dealings with the tribes, including tax exemption and reservation management, there was never a reason for the tribes to cement any sort of official affiliation with the federal government.

Today, eight of Virginia’s Indian tribes are seeking federal recognition, and are hopeful that it will one day more firmly establish their rightful status as ancient gatekeepers of this land. There are currently 566 federally-recognized tribes that together receive somewhere around $2.5 billion annually for programs and grants for their communities.

“Recognition is as much an acknowledgement of who we are as it is about money and programs,” says Wayne Adkins, who, in addition to his work for his own people, heads Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, or VITAL, an organization managing the recognition process for six tribes. VITAL has been working for federal recognition for more than a decade now. They’ve made some progress, but efforts to encourage Congress to pass a law recognizing them have so far stalled. Although VITAL has hired a lobbyist and tribal leaders have testified before congressional committees—and leaders, including Senator Jim Webb have supported them—legislative minutiae and red tape seem to be slowing the process. Adkins admits that this is frustrating at times, especially in light of an obvious fact: “Our people were here thousands of years before there was any United States to speak of,” he says with a polite grin.

A source of pride, however, for the Pamunkey and Mattaponi is the fact that they have been paying taxes to the Commonwealth for their land since their reservations were established.

Every year, on the day before Thanksgiving, Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribesmen, dressed in full regalia, meet the governor in person for the Tax Tribute Ceremony, a custom that began with the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation (some historians trace it even further back), signed in the months after a period of violence between English and Indians. The treaty established certain Virginia Indian tribes as subjects of the King of England and required a yearly tribute to the governor of three arrows and 20 beaver skins. In return, Indians were given assurances that they would be able to hold their reservations, and have all the rights that go along with land ownership, forever.

Shining light on Indians’ deep historical connection to the government, the people and the land has been facilitated by a number of Indian-led initiatives in recent years, including the Virginia Indian Program, headed by Karenne Wood, a 52-year-old Monacan poet and author. Wood’s demure demeanor belies her hard work on behalf of Indians. Before her current job, Wood worked to repatriate religiously significant native artifacts that somehow made it into the hands of private collectors. She is currently pursuing a PhD in anthropology at the University of Virginia and working to revive native languages. She is the editor of The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail, a region-by-region guidebook to the Commonwealth’s extensive Indian resources published by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. VFH has sponsored traveling exhibits and a digital online archive for historic Indian photographs and documents and, with the help of grants from state agencies, has so far distributed 100,000 copies of the publication. “Most people were not even aware of the state-recognized tribes,” says Wood. “They knew Pocahontas and John Smith, and that’s it. I’m happy to say we helped to change that.”

Though it may take the federal government some time to recognize them, Virginia’s Indians don’t need distant bureaucrats to affirm their identity. For that, they can just look to their ancient lands and customs, to their relationships with the people around them and to the initiatives they’re leading and the opportunities they’re pursuing. “We know we’re Indians,” says Wayne Adkins. “Indian identity is in your head and your heart.”

This article originally appeared in our October 2012 issue.

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