Updated: Aug 16, 2021
To this day, people say that they didn’t know there were Indigenous tribes still in Virginia or reservations. Well, they haven’t gone anywhere and have always been here.
When it comes to Virginia’s first people, there can be confusion as to whether to refer to the tribes as Virginia Indians or Virginia Native Americans. The same can be said for African Americans and Black Americans. It really depends on who you are talking to. Lesson to be learned; it's based off of their personal preference, not what we want to label them as.
There are eleven tribes in Virginia: Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi, Nansemond, Monacan Indian National, Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Nottoway, and Patawomeck. There are two reservations –Mattaponi and Pamunkey – both in King William County. They are the two oldest reservations in the nation.
Why have we forgotten about Virginia’s first people? Some point to Hollywood movies and T.V. only spotlighting tribes west of the Mississippi. Maybe the biggest reason is the deliberate erasing of an entire identity, culture, civilization. Virginia took part by passing the Racial Integrity Law in 1924. After passage, the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics recognized only two races – white and black. If you were a Virginia Indian, you didn’t exist, according to the law.
Doctors, nurses, and midwives understood that they were to enter a race of white or colored on a birth certificate, or there would be consequences, reinforcing the segregation and discrimination in Virginia. It was a form of document genocide for the Virginia Indigenous population. Some people traveled to Washington D.C. or North Carolina to get married so that their certificate stated that they were “Indian”.
Another way to hold onto their culture was by opening up their own schools like the Sharon Indian School in King William County, which now is the only public Indian school building still standing in Virginia. It is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Buildings.
Virginia’s Native Americans have held yearly Pow Wows to bring tribes together. People get to connect to other young members and elders and celebrate their culture, keeping it alive.
The eleven tribes in Virginia had a hard and long road to traverse to be federally recognized. What exactly is federal recognition? It’s recognizing the sovereignty of each tribe. It provides access to funding and federally funded programs, like scholarships and grants to colleges that are only available to federally recognized tribes. With funding they will be able to keep improving their living conditions on reservations.
The process is complicated and a balancing act, like starting a business. You have to develop a specific business plan as to how you intend to use the grants. If you are awarded the money, you have to provide periodic reporting to demonstrate how you are utilizing those funds. It’s not free money.
Most Virginian tribes recognition has only just been granted. The Pamunkey received federal recognition in July 2015. The tribe began the process to petition the Department of Interior for recognition in the early 1980s. The Chickahominy – along with the Chickahominy Eastern Division, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemond, and Monacan tribes – received federal recognition in January 2018. The ancestors of these tribes stretch back thousands of years, but are only now being recognized.
The tribes located in central Virginia – the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, and Upper Mattaponi – are Eastern Woodland Indians, part of the Algonquin family of Indians. The Pamunkey Indian Tribe has existed in what is now Eastern Virginia for over 10,000 years.
Let us help Virginia’s first people not be forgotten.
You can support by attending different events the tribes invite the public to, visit their museums, and volunteer your time to causes they believe in fighting for. Keep learning, keep growing.
Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center http://pamunkey.org/reservation/museum-cultural-center/
Wolf Creek Cherokee Museum & Tribal Center
Virginian Indian Trail guide