Indian Tribes/Nations In Virginia
The average person is unaware that Virginia is home to eleven state recognized Indian tribes. They are not the subject of travel brochures or even our history books. Few of our museums tell the story of Virginia’s Indians and their rich cultures and diverse traditions are rarely featured at State events and celebrations. Theirs is a history that should have been taught first, before the history of the European invasion. It was the Indians, after all, who welcomed the invaders with hospitality and generosity. In exchange, they were almost eradicated.
Oh indeed, the Commonwealth of Virginia has a past; a past of extreme racist attitude towards people of color and a history of efforts to erase the history of the Indians of Virginia. The most effective of these efforts has to be the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which prohibited marriage between Caucasians and people of color. The enactment of this law forced many of Virginia Indians to make choices that would affect families for years to come and, would misrepresent population statistics for centuries.
Those choices included:
- Leaving the state to marry elsewhere.
- Lying about their race on state documents.
- Marrying within their own blood lines.
For obvious reasons, the number of people recognized as Indians in Virginia dwindled as many assimilated into the dominant culture. As tribal/community minded people, many assimilated through Christianity, finding comfort in belonging to a church community. Their histories could have been lost forever. Thankfully, some tribes remained in small communities and refused to turn their back on their traditions. They are the backbone of what has become a new generation of Virginia Indians; the brave and proud ones who preserved the culture and tribal ways for future generations. Their courage can be credited with the renewal of pride in the contemporary Indian from the Commonwealth. Their strength and sense of self-determination has given each of the eleven Virginia Indian tribes a renewed interest in reclaiming their heritage.
What Is A Tribe?
To become a State recognized tribe in the Commonwealth of Virginia, a community must meet the following criteria:
- Show that the group's members have retained a specific Indian identity through time.
- Descent from a historical Indian tribe(s) that lived within Virginia's current boundaries at the time of that tribe's first contact with Europeans.
- Trace the tribe's continued existence within Virginia from first contact down to the present.
- Provide a complete genealogy of current group members, traced as far back as possible.
- Show that the community has been socially distinct - at least for the 20th century, and farther back if possible - from other cultural groups, preferably by organizing separate churches, schools, political organizations, etc.
- Provide evidence of contemporary formal organization, with full membership restricted to people genealogically descended from the historical tribe(s).
An Introduction to the Eleven Recognized Tribes In Virginia
The Nottoway People were recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2010. They are found throughout the southeast with a concentration of members in the area of the Nottoway River in Tidewater, Virginia. They are known as the “People of the Longhouse”. Their governmental structure is based on an Iroquoian style of government. The tribe hosts an annual Powwow in September. They also operate a Community House and Interpretive Center in Capron, Virginia. Visitors are welcome on Saturdays at no charge and are invited to come and learn about the rich history of the Nottoway.
Recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2010, this tribe is small and located in the area of Courtland, in Southampton County, Virginia. Their name is interpreted to mean “People at the Fork of the Stream”. According to the tribe’s web site, the language of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) was Darsunke. In 1607 the tribe was known as Man-goak or Men-gwe by the Powhatan Confederation’s Algonquian speakers. In 2002, the tribe completed a reorganization and established a tribal government. They held their first Powwow in 2002 and it has become an annual celebration known as the Green Corn Harvest. They are currently seeking federal recognition.
The Mattaponi have been recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia since the 17th century. Their original language is Algonquian. Situated along the banks of the Mattaponi River, the Mattaponi Reservation is located in King William County, Virginia and dates back to1658. It is one of the oldest reservations in the United States. The Mattaponi currently enrolls approximately 450 individuals with only about 75 living on the Mattaponi Reservation. The reservation spans approximately 150 acres, some of which is wetland. The Mattaponi River is thought to be one of the most pristine rivers in the eastern United States and provides abundant Shad, the dietary staple for many Mattaponi families. The Mattaponi Reservation consists of small homes, a church, a museum, a fish hatchery and marine science facility and a community building that was once the reservation school. The Mattaponi are serious stewards of the land and the river.
First recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1983, the Upper Mattaponi was once known as the Adamstown Band because an abundance of families had the name of Adams. They officially became known as the Upper Mattaponi in 1921. the Upper Mattaponi own 32 acres of land along the upper reaches of the Mattaponi River in King William County. The Upper Mattaponi built their community around Christianity, more specifically, the Indian View Baptist Church. The church is located next door to the Sharon Indian School, the only public Indian School building in Virginia. The tribe hosts an annual Spring Festival and Powwow
The Pamunkey were recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia as far back as the 17th century. Adjacent to King William County on the Pamunkey River, is the Pamunkey Indian Reservation. The Reservation is approximately 1200 acres with 500 acres being wetlands and creeks. Most members live off the reservation in nearby Newport News and Richmond. Virginia. There are only about 23 families who actually reside on the reservation. For visitors, a walk through the Pamunkey Museum is an introduction to the primitive life of the ancient Pamunkey. The Museum Gift Shop sells many handmade Pamunkey crafts including pottery made from clay dug from the Pamunkey River.
Nansemond Indians were recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1985. They lived in several towns along the Nansemond River around the area of Suffolk, Virginia. The tribe once had a population of 1200 members, 300 of which were bowmen. The life of the Nansemond centered around fishing, growing corn, and bear hunting. In 1608, the arriving English raided the Nansemond town, burring houses, destroying canoes, and forcing the Nansemond to leave their corn crops and relocate on numerous occasions. They lost their last reservation land in 1792. Today the Nansemond operate a tribal museum and gift shop in Chuckatuck and are planning to build a tribal center, museum, and living history center on the ancestral lands. They celebrate their history with a Powwow each August. The Nansemond wore jewelry made from shells, freshwater pearls, copper, and animal parts as a status symbol.Nansemond
The Chickahominy were officially recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1996. Once living in towns along the Chickahominy River, the Chickahominy tribe is now located in Charles City County, Virginia, between Richmond and Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1646 the tribe was granted reservation land in the Pamunkey Neck area of Virginia but eventually lost the land and a slow migration carried them to the area called Chickahominy Ridge. Families living along the Ridge eventually bought land and established the Samaria Baptist Church which serves as a focal point for the tribe. They host an annual Fall Festival at their tribal center. Their current population is about 875 members all living within a 5 mile radius of the tribal center. The Chickahominy are currently pursuing federal recognition.
Officially recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1983, the Eastern Division of the Chichahominy tribe can be found just east of Richmond, Virginia in new Kent County. Their name is interpreted as “coarse ground corn people” and they are 164 members strong. The tribe purchased 31 acres of land in 2002, making them one of the last of the state tribes too own land. The tribe plans to build a tribal center and museum which will serve as the center for fellowship for tribal members. The tribe is proud of its long history of members who have served in the U.S. military and those who are now working in the areas of business administration, nursing, technology.
Also recognized by the Commonwealth in 1983, the Rappahannock are found at Indian Neck in King and Queen County, Virginia. Their land once encompassed 3,474 acres but the Rappahannock suffered a forced removal in 1683 when they were used as human shields to protect white Virginias from the continued attacks by the Iroquois of New York. The Rappahannock Tribe hosts an annual Harvest Festival and Powwow in October at their Cultural Center in Indian Neck.
The Monacan Indian Nation is approximately 1700 members strong and the center for their tribal base and activities is located in Amherst County, Virginia. They received state recognition in 1989. The original language of the Monacan Indians was a Siouan language. They are believed to be related to the Occaneechi and Saponi People who are located in North Carolina. The tribe hosts an annual Powwow in May and a Homecoming Festival in October. The spiritual life of the Monacans centers around St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, located adjacent to the Community Center and Monacan Nation Museum. The Monacan Indian Nation is currently seeking federal recognition.
The Patawomeck were recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2010 and the center of their tribal life is located in Stafford, Virginia. Their language is of Algonquian origin. The Patawomeck Tribe is in the early stage of resurrecting its history and culture. The tribe is currently exploring options for fundraising that will enable them to obtain land on which to build a tribal center. Cultural classes are ongoing to teach tribal members and the youth about their history, culture, and arts and they continue to enroll new members.
Additional Hub Resources
- The Monacan Indian Nation In Central Virginia
A brief history of the Monacan Indian Nation in Central Virginia who continue the fight to be recognized by the Federal Government after more than 10,000 years of documented existence.
- Native American Nations in Southeastern US, continued
Southeastern United States has seen substantial contact of Native American and Europeans and other immigrants for centuries...
- The Chesapeake Indians and the Powhatan Prophecy
History of Indians in the Chesapeake area of Virginia and Maryland.
- Why the Native Americans ultimately lost America
Resources and Opinions
An excellent resource for learning more about the Indians of Virginia is the book titled "The Virginia Indian Heritage Trail", edited by Karenne Wood (Monacan Indian). It is available in pdf format by clicking the book title above. It can also be purchased at Amazon.com. Just click here.
As in all things "Indian", there will be those who dispute the authenticity of these small tribes. There will be those who say the are nothing more than mixed breed Cherokee, or not Indian at all. To them I would ask - can you prove it? In my experience, being Indian is about belonging to a community of people with ties to the land, a history of language, ceremony, and oral traditions. Although I do not agree with authentication by any form of government (state or federal), I believe the criteria required by the Commonwealth of Virginia puts all these communities to a stringent test of proof. It is enough for me.
© 2012 Linda Crist, All rights reserved.