Preserving A Legacy

Six of Virginia’s Indian tribes receive long-awaited federal recognition.

Dancers at the 2016 Monacan Nation Powwow.

Four centuries after the first waves of europeans set foot on Chesapeake shores and discovered a land amply populated by native inhabitants, six of those Indian tribes achieved an important milestone when President Donald Trump signed legislation in January granting them federal recognition.

Now, the 4,500 members of the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemond and Monacan tribes, along with members of the Pamunkey tribe, which received federal recognition in 2015, are eligible for benefits, including housing, education and healthcare grants. The Pamunkey (the tribe of Powhatan and Pocahontas) also have plans in the works for a $700 million resort and casino.

But the acknowledgment is just as much about principle as it is economic opportunity, says Dean Branham, Chief of the Monacan Indian Nation: “Our ancestors who lived in Amherst County fought all those years to prove who they were. Now, we can finally say that the United States government says we are who we say we are.”

Virginia tribes, spearheaded by the Pamunkey, have been working to achieve federal recognition since 1982. They are now among 573 tribes across the U.S. with this status. 

Despite disease, war and assimilation programs that caused some of Virginia’s earliest tribes to disperse or disappear altogether, these often tight social communities have carried on their culture and traditions, inviting the public to witness ceremonial powwows and the annual Tax Tribute Ceremony the day before Thanksgiving, a custom that honors a 1677 treaty with the Crown of England. During the ceremony, dressed in full tribal regalia, tribe members present the governor with a gift of game.

After so many years of fighting for recognition, the Monacan Nation’s first steps, according to Branham, include administrative tasks such as setting up a new office and acquiring proper software. But he and his tribe are happy to have even this mundane work on their agenda: “This opens up many doors for us.”


Mark your calendars for Sept. 29-30, when members of Virginia’s Indian tribes participate in the American Indian Intertribal Powwow at Jamestown Settlement in James City County. Each day begins with a parade at 12:30 p.m. followed by an afternoon of traditional singing and dancing. 

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