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Virginia’s First People

Virginia’s Indian tribes were the first to welcome our nation’s founding fathers to a strange New World. In a sad irony, they are among the last to gain federal recognition.
by Emily Grey

The healing aroma of burning sage, sweet grass, and wood chips wafted throughout Chickahominy tribal grounds. Drums thundered as chiefs, bearing the American and tribal flags, marched into a sanctified circle.
Following a prayer and the tribes’ anthem, a spirited festival began. Children and adults adorned in colorful regalia, decorated in beads, feathers, hides, and shiny medallions, danced rhythmically and soulfully. Some participants sang poignantly, expressing their love for the Creator and nature.

This celebration, held in Charles City County on May 4 and 5, 2002, not only welcomed spring, it was the first occasion in 400 years that six Virginia Indian tribes had convened in a joint powwow.
“The last time our people came together as a nation, the Powhatan Confederacy of Virginia consisted of 32 tribes with over 14,000 people,” said Powhatan Red Cloud Owen, Chickahominy tribesman and chairman of the historic powwow gathering. “This powwow will be our rebuilding of what was once a great nation.”

It was also a historic first as the Monacan Indian Nation from Virginia’s Piedmont joined eastern tribes in the festivity. This event was one of several fundraising efforts by VITAL (Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life). This lobbying group formed in May, 2001, to obtain federal recognition for participating Virginia Indian tribes.

“I am overwhelmed,” Mary Wade, chairperson of VITAL, addressed the crowd. “Spirituality is strong today.” (Ms. Wade, who poured her life and soul into the VITAL cause, passed away in April 2003, after this story was written.)

Over 6,000 people purchased dream catchers, woven blankets, pottery, and jewelry from various Native American vendors. Fish sandwiches, Indian fry bread, and other refreshments fed the hungry group who mingled with chiefs and listened to accounts about different tribes.
Nansemond tribe members demonstrated flint knapping and ways early Indians shaped tools and weapons for survival. Women performed everyday living activities inside a replica of a longhouse.
As the amazing pageantry closed, it rained as if to signal a trail of tears. So far, the United States government has recognized around 550 tribes, but not Virginia’s. Our Commonwealth’s tribes were the first people to welcome European colonists to the New World. It is sad that they are among the last of our nation’s Indian tribes to be federally recognized.

House Resolution 2345 (the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act) was introduced in Congress in 2001. [It was re-introduced in 2003 by Rep. Jim Moran as H.R. 1938, and in the Senate by Sen. George Allen as S.1423, co-sponsored by Sen. John Warner.] An honorary member of the Chickahominy and Nansemond tribes, Jordan’s mission was to advance the American Indians of Virginia. Appointed by Governor Allen, she served as chairperson of the Virginia Council on Indians until her final bout with cancer.
Ben Adams, member of the Upper Mattaponi people, confers with U.S. Senator John Warner on federal recognition for Virginia tribes.
Why is federal recognition important? This special status provides scholarships for young Indian children, health care for the elderly, and other bonuses.

It is difficult and time-consuming to qualify for this acknowledgment. Painstaking records, histories, and genealogies of each tribe must be proffered to proper governmental authorities. Sponsors of H.R. 2345 include Representatives Jim Moran, Rick Boucher, Jo Ann Davis, Tom Davis, Edward Schrock, Bobby Scott, and Randy Forbes.

Our state formally recognizes the following eight tribes. All except the latter two are seeking federal recognition.


The powwow held in Charles City County in 2002 marked the first occasion in 400 years that six Virginia tribes convened in a joint celebration.
When Jamestown was founded, munguy or “great men” governed this tribe who lived in villages along the James and Chickahominy rivers to the center of New Kent County. As the English settlement grew, the Chickahominy were driven from their homeland and subsequent villages. Gradually, they migrated back to New Kent and then Charles City County. They purchased land between Williamsburg and Richmond and established Samaria Baptist Church, where an annual fall festival and powwow are held.
Today, like many other tribes, an elected chief, assistant chief, and a council of men and women serve as leaders. Approximately 750 Chickahominy people reside within five miles of the Tribal Center. Several hundred more live in other parts of the United States.

8200 Lott Cary Rd.
Providence Forge, VA 23140
CHIEF: Stephen R. Adkins

Over 6,000 people purchased dream catchers, woven blankets, pottery, and jewelry from various Native American vendors like this one during the two-day powwow.

Once a part of the Chickahominy tribe, about 150 people regrouped for religious, educational, and benevolent purposes. This incorporated non-taxable organization is supported through dues-paying members and contributions. They are located in New Kent County about 25 miles east of Richmond.
1211 Indian Hill Lane
Providence Forge, VA 23140
CHIEF: Marvin Bradbury

Amherst County’s Bear Mountain has been home to the Monacans for over 10,000 years. In 1607, they and their allies, the Mannahoacs, ruled the regions between the fall line of the rivers near Fredericksburg and Richmond, west to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Monacans, outside the original Powhatan Empire, represent the Siouan culture and language system.
The current 1,400 members are striving to save their heritage and customs. Their ancestral museum and cultural center is located at St. Paul’s Episcopal Mission. In 1995, the Episcopal Diocese returned the land to the tribe. Subsequently, the Monacans purchased over 100 acres and two additional parcels. With grants, they initiated an elders program, tribal scholarship fund, and a cultural education program. They have partnered with Natural Bridge to construct an interpretive village depicting Monacan culture to the 1700s.
P.O. Box 1136
Madison Heights, VA 24572
CHIEF: Kenneth Branham

In 1607, this 1,200-member tribe lived in the Reids Ferry area near Chuckatuck, or the present-day City of Suffolk. Their king resided near Dumpling Island where he kept his treasure houses. After English raids, the Nansemonds relocated several times and sold their final reservations in 1791-1792. Still located in the Chesapeake/Suffolk area, the tribe holds monthly meetings at 1850-founded Indiana Methodist Church. The 300 tribal members are planning a center/museum and living history venue on ancestral lands by the Nansemond River.
P.O. Box 2515
Suffolk, VA 23432
CHIEF: Barry W. Bass

In 1608, this tribe first greeted Captain John Smith at their Kingstowne, “Cat Point Creek” on the Rappahannock River’s banks. There were 13 villages on the south side and two on the north. In the late 1600s, one reserve was formed when the tribe was moved away from the river. Around 1705, they were pushed from Portabago Indian town and relocated at Indian Neck in King and Queen County. This area between the Mattaponi and Rappahannock rivers was their winter hunting grounds. Descendants have remained at this locale.
From the late 1800s to the 1950s, the Smithsonian conducted field studies of this tribe. To formalize their tribal government, the Rappahannocks incorporated with Virginia in 1921.
In 1995, they commenced building a cultural center targeted for completion by 2007, the 400th anniversary of America. In 1998, the tribe elected Chief G. Anne Richardson, the first woman chief since the 1700s. They also purchased 119.5 acres to establish a housing development and retreat center.
Rappahannock Cultural Center
HCR 1, Box 402
Indian Neck, VA 23148
CHIEF: G. Anne Richardson

The Upper Mattaponi people have a long history of residing on the upper reaches of the Mattaponi River in King William County. From 1702 until 1727, James Adams, the official interpreter of the British to the Chickahominy and Mattaponi, owned land on Acquinton Creek, just a few miles from the home of the Upper Mattaponi. During the 1800s so many had the last name Adams, they were known as the Adamstown Band. In the early 1900s, because they lived so close to the river, they officially changed their name to the Upper Mattaponi. They had their own school, which they now use as their tribal center. It is the only public Indian school building still existing in Virginia. Today there are over 500 Upper Mattaponi people.
Rt. 1, Box 182
King William, VA 23086
CHIEF: Kenneth Adams

In 1646, this tribe commenced paying tribute to an early Virginia governor. This tradition continues today around Thanksgiving when the Mattaponi present game or fish and gifts to our state’s current governor.
The 75 or so members live on a reservation dating back to 1658. In search of outside work, many of the younger members left their homeland, which expands along the borders of the Mattaponi River in King William County.
Before the colonists arrived, these Indians worshipped the Great Spirit. Now, they have their own Southern Baptist church on the reservation.
Mattaponi Indian Reservation
Route #2, Box 310
West Point, VA 23181
CHIEF: Carl Custalow

Consisting of 10,000 people or 32 to 34 tribes, the Pamunkey were the most powerful of the Powhatan Confederacy. Chief Powhatan’s territory included the entire eastern coastal plain from the North Carolina border to Washington, DC. He and his daughter, Pocahontas, lived among the Pamunkey people.
This is one of the last of the Powhatan tribes who have continued crafting pottery since aboriginal times. The 100 members live on the King William County Pamunkey Indian Reservation near Lester Manor.
Route 1, Box 2220
King William, VA 23086
CHIEF: “Swift Waters” Miles

In time, our state’s first American Indian Memorial Park with a sacred circle and ceremonial center will be built in the Tidewater area. This facility will feature a library and learning center and focus on the past, present, and future of our first inhabitants. Old history books provide only snippets of information about Virginia’s First People. It benefits everyone to study accurate chronicles.

Since the 2002 powwow, the six tribes seeking federal recognition have had favorable hearings in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. New bills have been introduced and progress has been made, but there is still opposition from some Virginia Congressmen. With Jamestown 2007 rapidly approaching, the efforts to achieve recognition have intensified.

To learn more about this issue and the annual powwow of Virginia’s First People contact:

3120 Mount Pleasant Road
Providence Forge, VA 23141
(804) 938-3490

United Indians of Virginia
P.O. Box 224
New Kent, VA 23124
(804) 966-9830

Reprinted from Cooperative Living

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