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With State’s Nod, Indians’ Spirits Can Walk Free

May 8, 2010

By Amelia Reddington
Capital News Service

In the bowels of the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., are boxes containing the skeletal remains of more than 130 Native Americans who died in Virginia centuries ago.

They were members of the Patawomeck and Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) tribes; their remains date to 1580. The bones were excavated by the Smithsonian Institution during an archeological dig in Southampton County in the 1960s.

Both tribes want the museum to return the remains so their ancestors can be restored to their proper resting place.

“Their spirits are not walking free,” said Chief Walt D. “Red Hawk” Brown III of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Tribe. “Because they are in shoe boxes – not where they are supposed to be.”

To reclaim the ancestral remains, the tribes must petition the Smithsonian Institute. But there’s a catch: The institute can turn over the bones only to a tribe that has official recognition from a state government.

“It is important for our tribe to take possession of the many skeletal remains of our early forebears,” said Bill “Night Owl” Deyo, the Patawomeck tribal historian. “We were told that those remains would not be released to us unless we became a state-recognized tribe.”

After years of pleading, the Indians finally got that recognition this spring.

The 2010 Virginia General Assembly passed resolutions extending state recognition to three Native American tribes:

  • House Joint Resolution 171, sponsored by Delegate Roslyn C. Tyler, D-Jarratt, recognized the Chereonhaka (Nottoway) Indians. Warriors from this tribe, which lived in what is now Southampton County, “joined forces with Nathaniel Bacon in what became known as the infamous Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676,” the resolution noted.

  • HJ 150, sponsored by House Speaker William J. Howell, a Republican from Fredericksburg, recognized the Patawomeck Indians. This tribe, which was also called the Potomac tribe and was based in what is now Stafford County, “occupied a prominent place in the documented history of the first half-century of European contact with the Native Virginians,” the resolution said.

  • SJ 12 sponsored by Sen. Louise L. Lucas, D-Portsmouth, recognized the Nottaway Indian Tribe. “The 1728 William Byrd expedition stayed with the Nottoway during the journey to survey the dividing line between Virginia and North Carolina and described the Nottoway as the only Indians of any consequence now remaining within the limits of Virginia,” the resolution stated.

State recognition has significance beyond allowing the Patawomeck and Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) tribes to petition for the return of their ancestral remains from the Smithsonian.

The General Assembly’s actions also give the three tribes the ability to establish their historical identities.

“State tribe recognition means that the tribes will be able to claim their heritage in Virginia’s history, classrooms, books and ceremonies such as the inauguration (of the Virginia governor),” Tyler said.

Legislators also gave the three tribes representation on the Virginia Council on Indians.

“When the Commonwealth of Virginia extends ‘tribal recognition’ by an act of the General Assembly, the recipient is recognized as an Indian-descended group that has functioned in specific ways over time,” the council’s website states.

Patawomeck Tribe

State recognition will help the Patawomeck Indians preserve their heritage and inform the public of the tribe’s importance in Virginia’s history.

“If our tribe had not helped the colonists at Jamestown by providing them with food, the colony may not have survived,” said Deyo, who spent 30 years documenting that survivors of the Patawomeck tribe remained in Stafford County.

Deyo said history books used in schools have overlooked the Patawomecks.

“It is important to us that our story be told,” he said.

State recognition will also help Patawomeck tribal descendents enroll in colleges and eliminate the costs of licenses for hunters and anglers of the tribe.

“We hope to one day have a museum to display historical artifacts of our tribe,” Deyo said. “State recognition may help us to obtain funding to support that dream.”


Chief Rob Green of the Patawomeck Tribe dressed in full tribal regalia at the Stafford County Discovery Days.
(Photo courtesy of Gloria Weedon Sharp)

Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Tribe

The Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Tribe has been seeking recognition for almost a decade. The tribe has lived in Virginia for at least 430 years.

“We’ve got a rich history,” said Chief “Red Hawk” Brown. “We have always claimed we had a recognized relationship with Virginia. That’s what we have pushed for the last nine years.”

For example, Brown said, the Cheroenhaka people sought state recognition in 2006 – but the tribe wasn’t invited to testify, and the legislative effort failed. “Had we’d been given opportunity to testify, we would have been recognized in 2006.”

With the state recognition this year, the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Tribe now can sell arts and crafts as authentic Indian, reclaim land and build a tribal education center. The resolution will also help provide educational grants for tribal members.

“State recognition brings about a sense of pride,” Brown said. “Virginia now says you are who you say you are.”

Cheroenhaka means “People at the Fork of the Stream.” The tribe’s lodging area was where the Nottoway River forked with the Backwater River to form the Chowan River. Some Indians called the Cheroenhaka “Na-Da-Wa” – which the colonials heard as Nottoway. However, the tribe’s true name is Cheroenhaka.

Nottoway Indian Tribe

“The Nottoway Tribe was a powerful tribe at the time of the English settlement of the land that became Virginia, and its prominent role in the early history of this Commonwealth is well documented,” according to the resolution bestowing state recognition.

For instance, the Nottoway king signed major treaties with Virginia in 1677 and 1713-14.

The recent push for state recognition began in 2006, when five Nottoway descendants established the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia Inc. with Lynette L. Allston as chief. The tribe has about 120 members.

State recognition is significant for the Nottoways because it “allows them to reclaim a place in history and textbooks as a major tribe in the state,” Allston said.

“Most important is the opportunity to have influence in how history is taught so that adults and youth are aware of the very rich history that Virginia Native Americans have played and continue to play in our state.”

The tribe will also be entitled to inclusion in other statewide Native American events.

Restoring History and Identity

Although grateful to receive state recognition, Chief Brown raised a question: “Why is it that Native Americans have to prove who they are?”

Many Native American identities were lost because of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Under that state law, it was illegal to declare any race other than white or “colored.” Virginians who said they were Native American could be arrested.

According to the Nottoway Indians’ website, the Racial Integrity Act forced many Native Americans to live outside their culture.

“Native Americans have lived through decades of legal and historical oppression,” the site states. “Survival was achieved by living quietly.”

With state recognition, tribes are slowly reclaiming their identities and teaching the history of their people.

“We all have much to gain from reaching out to share culture,” Chief Allston said. “All of us and all of our cultures have made Virginia a better home today than it was in centuries past.”

Here is an interactive graphic about Virginia’s Indian tribes.