“NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY IN VIRGINIA”
Written By: Zach Champ
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Archeological remains show that ancient people have lived in the area known as Virginia since roughly 15,000 bce.
Native American history and legacy lives in plain sight everywhere in Virginia. Most of Virginia’s names for its cities, town’s and rivers are based on traditional Native American names for these locations.
Examples include Rappahannock, Quantico, Aquia, Occoquan, Massaponax, Tappahannock, Mattaponi to name a few…
Three major language groups dominated Virginia prior to European arrival. They were the Algonquin speaking tribes, the Iroquoian (Cherokee) speaking tribes, and the Siouan speaking tribes.
Despite the difference in language, all native groups in Virginia lived within a similar seasonal cycle of hunting, fishing, and growing/harvesting crops in well-cultivated gardens.
Individuals and families would move around between summer and winter homes as the seasons shifted and food supplies adjusted.
Virginia Natives were well-tuned for their local environment and lived in balance and harmony with nature…
Native Americans cultivated corn, tobacco, and beans as well as hunted animals such as deer, bear, and even buffalo which existed within the state until at least 1700.
HERNANDO DE SOTO’S CONQUEST OF THE AMERICAN SOUTHEAST
It may surprise you to learn that the first Europeans to explore Virginia were not the British, but rather the Spanish!
Decades before Jamestown, the Spanish had been trolling along the coast of the Atlantic from their strongholds in the Caribbean and Florida becoming familiar with the surrounding area. The land that would become Virginia was known to the Spanish as Ajacan.
In an attempt to pacify and Christianize the unruly local Patawomeck Indians, the Spanish even built a Church near modern day Aquia Harbour in Stafford Virginia. It didn’t last long though, as the foreign outpost was isolated from other settlements and eventually local natives burned it down and killed all the priests there in the year 1571.
Even before the failed Ajacan mission, the Spanish were clashing with natives in Virginia…
Perhaps the most famous Spaniard to set foot in Virginia was the legendary and infamous conquistador Hernando de Soto.
Known for his earlier conquests in Peru destroying the Inca Empire, de Soto afterwards set his sights on the American south in pursuit of fabled “native gold and treasures”.
Hernando de Soto launched several entradas (invasions) into the American southeast during the years 1541 and 1567.
Both times de Soto’s expedition force reached deep into Appalachia near the Virginia/Tennessee border and where the modern day Holston River flows.
At the time of de Soto’s entradas this area was home to several settled farming and fishing/hunting communities.
These invasions were highly disruptive to native culture within the region, and culminated in the destruction of native cities like Maniatique (which would later become Saltville, Virginia) with mass violence against various tribal groups resulting in the death of thousands.
It is also recorded that around this time the first marriage between a European christian soldier and a Cherokee Native American Woman occurred near present-day Saltville Virginia. Her given name was Luisa Menendez.
CHEROKEE IN THE APPALACHIAN MOUNTAINS (...AND BEYOND!)
The Cherokee are a unique indigenous ethnic group that speak an Iroquoian based language.
While Algonquin speaking groups predominated the tidewater region of Virginia, the Cherokee settled themselves within the Appalachian Mountains west and further inland from their neighbors, as well as along the Nottoway River in Southern Virginia. The Cherokee were also settled across the border in North Carolina and in Tennessee.
The Cherokee lived in villages consisting of family homes, some of which were built on raised mounds and surrounded by palisades.
The Appalachian Mountains cross through several Southeastern states continuing northward towards Canada. The rich landscape of the mountains provided a lush and thriving woodland environment for the Cherokee to thrive off of. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the Cherokee would often find themselves at odds with their Algonquin speaking neighbors. Places like Natural Bridge were the site of fierce battles against rivals like the Powhatan Confederacy.
Appalachia was the first frontier in Colonial America. When British settlers started pushing westward the smaller ranges of the Blue Ridge and Shenandoah were the first obstacle towards their expansion. When the colonial Americans encountered native peoples living in balance with the environment and at a better advantage to their own small land-holdings, they felt threatened.
This in time led to events like the Indian Removal Act of 1820 and the subsequent Trail of Tears where an estimated 75,000 Native American individuals and their families were forcibly deported from their home states along the East Coast to Oklahoma and the Indian Territory out west.
Cherokee language is one of the few functionally intact native languages, whereas many others have gone extinct because of forced relocation and cultural education programs. Many Native American languages are spoken word only, meaning they have no system of writing and recording words. However, the Cherokee do have a system of writing and a wide-spread movement to promote the education and continued use of Cherokee language. This is perhaps why it has been so well-preserved over the decades, and it is primarily thanks to the inspiration of one 18th century Native-American man…
His name was Sequoyah, and he was a genius and polymath from the Cherokee Nation. He invented a syllabary, or alphabet, to codify the Cherokee language so that it could be written and read by all his peoples. It was so successful that the Cherokee Nation achieved a 100% literacy rate for both Cherokee language and English by the 1850s, while surrounding towns failed and struggled to compete in literacy rates for both Whites and Blacks.
Despite these achievements, the Cherokee people have faced continued controversy and opposition towards the preservation of their culture. Many Cherokee people are considered to be part of heritage groups and unrecognized tribes. This is because of the separation of Cherokee peoples into two splinter groups- an Eastern band (those who resisted and stayed) and a Western band (those who were relocated during Trail of Tears). The Federal and State governments favor only groups affiliated with Western band of Cherokee (those who were resettled) and therefore Cherokee individuals on the East-Coast are unable to benefit from Federal and State benefits set aside for Native individuals due to their unrecognized status.
Today the Commonwealth of Virginia recognizes the Monacan Nation as a unique tribe, but two major Cherokee groups remain unrecognized including the Wolf Creek Cherokee of Richmond Virginia and the Appalachian Cherokee Nation in Southwest Virginia.
Both unrecognized tribes maintain non-profit organizations to educate the public about their people and also have museums which can be visited.
(Show support for both groups by visiting their website today!)
THE POWHATAN & POCAHONTAS
In May of 1607 the British under the auspices of the Virginia Tobacco Company of London established their fort and settlement Jamestown along the James River.
This would become the first permanent English settlement in the Americas.
The colonial settlers had a lot of difficulties establishing themselves in the New World, and an estimated 80% of them died within the first five years of the settlement’s foundation. For much of its history the settlers at Jamestown had to rely on imports of much needed food and resources, as well as trading with the local native Powhatan Confederacy.
The Powhatan were a confederacy of Algonquin speaking tribes in the tide-water area of Virginia. They called this place Tsenacommacah, and it is here that would become the original ancestral home of Virginia Indians.
At its peak, the Powhatan Confederacy was estimated to consist of 25,000 individuals divided into various tribal bands and family groups.
The capital of the Powhatan Confederacy was a village called Werowocomoco located in present-day Gloucester Virginia along the James River.
Chief Powhatan had a large colonial-style house built here as part of a trade deal with the Jamestown settlers which featured a large stone chimney in its meeting hall. This chimney is still standing to this day and is known as Powhatan’s Chimney.
Pocahontas was the Daughter of Chief Powhatan, the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy.
While we are all familiar with her thanks to the Disney movie, what is typically not known is her real name which actually was Mataoka or Matoax. The name Pocahontas is actually an Algonquin nick-name that loosely translates to “mischievous one” or “trouble-maker”.
Why was Pocahontas creating problems?
The original legend supposedly states that Captain John Smith was captured by the Powhatan Indians and brought before Chief Powhatan for his fate to be determined. When the Chief decided to kill John Smith, the Chief’s own daughter Pocahontas threw herself over Captain John Smith and pleaded for his life to be spared. This would be the start of a very complicated relationship.
The reality was that relations between the British Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan were hardly cordial.
Conflicts between the native inhabitants of Virginia and the European newcomers would often boil over into outright hostilities between the two. Some of the first conflicts fought in the New World would be the so-called “Anglo-Powhatan Wars”.
During the second Anglo-Powhatan conflict, Opechanough, who was the new chief after the death of Powhatan, led his warriors in a massacre that killed nearly 500 individuals, almost ⅓ of all the English settlers in the area at that time.
Unfortunately, he was captured and executed shortly after, and the Powhatan would ultimately be driven off their lands and forced to flee their ancestral home of Tsenacommacah.
Today modern descendants of the Powhatan include the Mattaponi, the Pamunkey, the Patawomeck, the Chickahominy, the Nansemond, and the Rappahannock.
WALTER PLECKER AND THE “PAPER GENOCIDE”
Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker was a physician known for his extremely racist views and policies as the first registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics. He was an avowed white supremacist and was responsible for the implementation of racist and genocidal policies which erased Native American identity from Virginia’s socio-political landscape during the early 20th century.
Walter Plecker believed that “there is no such thing as the Virginia Indian anymore”, and in his own views Virginia natives had been eradicated.
In his mind, the people that were claiming to be Native American in Virginia were actually mixed race blacks that were trying to “pass as white” for perceived political/social benefit.
With these ideas in mind, Dr. Plecker used his connections at the Bureau of Vital Statistics and lobbied the General in Richmond so as to successfully pass and codify into law the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.
The “Racial Integrity Act of 1924” officially prohibited interracial marriage and dictated that people of mixed race ancestry were not to be classified as “white”.
Literally overnight, entire individuals and families livelihoods and civil rights were affected including their ability to vote and their ability to seek formal education from colleges and universities.
Anyone who was a person of color, including Native Americans, were forced to be classified as either “white” or “black” based on their skin tone and direct ancestry. These laws further encouraged the belief of concepts like the “One-Drop Rule” and Blood Quantum.
Blood Quantum is a racist idea that seeks to classify a person’s ethnic identity based on their ancestry. It is a concept that originated with livestock and animal husbandry which was borrowed over into 19th and 20th century political and social belief systems.
Today only dogs, cattle, horses, and minorities like Native Americans and Blacks are officially classified and described based on the ‘purity of their blood’ within both Federal and State laws…
Blood quantum is used to establish degrees of established connectivity and relationship with Tribal groups and Native ancestry. Many tribes to this day use blood quantum as a means of eligibility for tribal enrollment.
It goes without saying how damaging and racist this is for our own people, however the argument is that because federally recognized tribal enrollment can grant certain benefits, “true” Native Americans don’t want non-natives to claim these benefits fraudulently.
The reality is though that this creates issues for people of mixed racial ancestry who identify ethnically as Native American and wish to reconnect with their culture!
It should be noted that until the passage of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, many prominent Virginia families proudly claimed descent from Pocahontas as a sign of their status and connection to the state.
Concern that the new one-drop rule would compromise these family's status and privilege forced the law to be revisited and an amendment to the law was passed known as “The Pocahontas” Exception. This rule stated that individuals with 1/16th Native American heritage could still classify as White.
This just goes to show that being “Indian” for most mixed-race whites was only essential to one’s identity insofar as a means to secure social status rather than as an expression of true ethnic and cultural identity and upbringing.
Once it was no longer convenient to assume this identity, it was easily abandoned whereas people who were definitively Indian, based on their ethnicity/skin color could not escape their ‘Indianness’ whether or not they wanted to because of the racist laws of Virginia.
This issue is still prevalent today amongst state recognized Virginia tribes which still require enrolled members to prove their native ‘ancestry’ via documentation and records rather than cultural upbringing and ethnic identity.
FEDERALLY RECOGNIZED TRIBES VS STATE RECOGNIZED TRIBES
What is a Federally Recognized Tribe? What is a State-Recognized Tribe?
To understand the difference between state-recognized and federally recognized tribes we have to fundamentally understand the importance of the TRIBAL CONCEPT to Indian ethnic identity.
All Native-Americans are citizens of the United States, but some are also citizens of sovereign tribal nations. Tribes which have kept self-autonomy and which maintain their own tribal reservation lands are referred to as “Federally Recognized”.
A Federally Recognized tribe maintains a “Government-to-government” relationship with the United States Federal Government.
The premise of tribal sovereignty is based on the Worcester v. Georgia Supreme Court ruling made in the 1820s by Chief Justice John Marshall stating that “Tribes keep certain inherent powers of self-government because of their status as ‘domestic dependent nations’.”
Today the US Government officially recognizes around 574 tribes.
In comparison, there are nearly 200 non-recognized tribes fighting for Federal and State recognition.
Not everyone who is Native American is tribal. In fact, most people who ethnically identify as Native American exist outside the scope and context of ‘tribal’ systems, specifically here on the East Coast.
Why? Census records show that approximately 10 million people or 3% of the US Population identifies as Native American. In comparison, only 1 million individuals identified as Native American during census records from the 1960s. What is driving this growth?
The simple answer is that people of mixed racial backgrounds who would have previously identified as either Black or White are reconnecting with their Native ancestry, and this is being reflected within official demographics.
What are reservations? Are there reservations in Virginia?
Reservations are established tracts of land which serve as permanent homelands for recognized tribal entities.
There are 2 reservations in the Commonwealth of Virginia. They are the Mattaponi Reservation and the Pamunkey Reservation.
Where did Virginia’s Native Americans go? Who are they today?
What does it mean to be a Virginia Indian?
According to the 2020 US Census, there are approximately 22,555 individuals who self-identify as Native American within the Commonwealth of Virginia.
I believe this number is significantly higher, especially when you take into consideration people who are of mixed racial backgrounds.
It is my personal conviction and belief that being Native American has less to do with direct ancestry and more so to do with one’s awareness of cultural concepts and issues, as well as a willingness to engage with those topics.
Issues that I think are important to all Natives include dismantling systematic racial persecution and oppression, as well as addressing climate change and environmental pollution and the abuse of the land/natural resources.
Our people have a thousand plus year legacy to uphold and maintain, and as a modern day Native American it is my personal responsibility to reconnect with my culture and understand these issues and educate those around me about them.