by Jody Argo SchroathWith all of
the anniversary folderol about Captain John Smith and his fellow
Jamestownians, it's easy to fall into the Eurocentric frame of mind and
forget the folks who were here to watch the settlers pull up to the
riverbank and park--permanently.
photographs by Starke Jett
this was no New World to them; they had been calling it home for at
least 10,000 years. Yet within 50 years of the event, the Indian tribes
of the Chesapeake had been killed, displaced and disenfranchised to
such an extent that only a few hundred remained where there had been
thousands. Over the succeeding 400 years those few held on tenaciously,
refusing to become entirely extinguished. Some--the Pamunkey and
Mattaponi tribes--even managed to cling to some few acres of their
original land, which they continue to hold as reservations, while
others--the Chickahominy and the Upper Mattaponi--continued to live
where once their villages prospered.
organizers of the official Jamestown 400 commemoration asked the eight
Indian tribes recognized by the state of Virginia to become part of the
planning process, some tribal leaders were dead-set against it. The
major objection was the federal government's continuing failure to
recognize a single Virginia Indian tribe. In the end, however, the
tribes agreed, and a number of Jamestown events are focusing on
But how do
these descendants of Virginia's "first families" feel about
commemorating an event that resulted in the loss of their land and a
large part of their civilization? What do they have to celebrate? We
asked Chief Kenneth Adams of the Upper Mattaponi to help us get a
better understanding of the Indians' point of view. We believe you'll
find his answers consistently thoughtful and occasionally surprising.
We sat down to talk on a warm spring morning on the grounds of the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Va. . . .
Chesapeake Bay Magazine:Here we are at the 400th
anniversary of the Jamestown landing, an event to which you and the
other members of the Virginia Indian tribes bring a peculiarly unique
perspective. I know that there were some among the tribes who objected
to joining the official commemoration, at least in part because the
federal government has yet to recognize any of the state's Indian
tribes. How was the argument settled? And why are the tribes just now
Chief Kenneth Adams:There was no discussion of federal recognition when I was a boy. In the
1970s, though, there were some educational opportunities that became
available to the tribes, but when the Virginia tribes applied, as far
as the federal government was concerned they didn't exist. So those
opportunities were not available. So there was inequality there. The
tribes said, we should at least go ahead with state recognition, and
they did and the state recognized eight Virginia tribes during the
1980s. Federal recognition seemed a natural progression. If one, why
not the other? What we didn't realize was that the process was so
cumbersome and so complex; we thought we just had to do the paperwork.
But the Bureau of Indian Affairs' process is a nightmare. Can you
imagine the federal government passing a law for which compliance takes
twenty to thirty years and costs millions of dollars? That's the
reality of recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. You have
to document your entire history. But many of the documents of the
Virginia Indians were destroyed during the Civil War when town records
were burned. My folks were here when the English came, but somehow
we're not going to make it official that you exist. The only other way
was to ask Congress to recognize us. This also seemed as if it should
be simple, so we started in earnest in 1999, and we're still not there.
Then we see
Jamestown 400 on the horizon. The Virginia Indians were here when the
birth took place, so it's obvious that if the Virginia Indians hadn't
been here, it would not have happened here. It would have
happened--there's no doubt about that, but it wouldn't have been at
Jamestown. Would anyone in their right mind settle in a place where
there is no human life, nobody to trade with, learn from--and nobody to
steal from, too? Look around the United States--many of the places
where cities and towns grew up were already Indian villages. Indians
provided a means of survival generally--and time and again at
Jamestown. But now you jump forward four hundred years and you've asked
the federal government to recognize you--which it hasn't--and the
federal government is taking part in the Jamestown 400 event. Then you
are asked to take part, too. That's a huge disconnect. There was a lot
of discussion. A lot were totally against it--I was. Why should I
celebrate something with an organization that doesn't recognize that I
exist? But we came to the conclusion after much angst that this would
give us an open door to explain our predicament and explain that we
have existed and do exist as Indian tribes. This also would give us the
opportunity to have some influence on the true history of Jamestown and
CBM: Has it worked out that way?
Chief Adams:I think it has worked. It gave us many more opportunities than we would
have had otherwise. One example is that we were invited to go to
England last summer for a weeklong Virginia Indian Festival. Fifty-five
of us traveled to the burial place of Pocahontas (at Gravesend). I
don't know of anyone who wasn't pleased with that experience. So doors
have begun to open. I don't regret our decision. I think that it was
the correct one.
we have the dilemma of federal recognition, though I think things are
in place to do it this year. We still have hurdles, though. We have
many endorsements: the Virginia General Assembly voted overwhelmingly
to support it; King William County Council unanimously endorsed it. The
Daughters of the American Revolution support it. Overall, the public
and Virginia government have said that this is the right thing to do.
The problem is that some of Virginia's congressional representatives
have chosen to oppose it. Congressman [Virgil] Goode [R-Va.] says it
would place us in an unequal position to the other citizens of
Virginia. We're already on an unequal status with the rest of the
Indians in America, even though our status is confirmed by the
Constitution and the Supreme Court. Congressman [Frank] Wolf [R-Va.]
opposes federal recognition because it "might" open doors to casinos,
even though we have done everything possible to put language in the
bill to exclude that possibility and the state is protected against it.
CBM: How do you feel about the Jamestown 400 commemoration?
Chief Adams:Even though we asked that it be called a commemoration, there are some
things we can celebrate--that we're part of a great country and that we
have survived against overwhelming obstacles, for example. Also that we
have thriving communities.
can't celebrate is that ninety percent of our people were erased from
the face of the earth. Or that the majority of our culture was
destroyed and our language has become nearly extinct. Our ancestors
lost nearly every piece of our land. I don't see how a reasonable
person could celebrate that. A few elements believe we can. They are
angry at us because we don't want to use "celebration." They say that
we're trying to rewrite history using "commemoration," that the
settlers came here as Christians. I say they came as conquerors. They
lied to the Indians about why they had come, even while they were
planting their cross at Cape Henry. As Christians, why lie about it?
How can we get along as people if we don't respect each other's views?
CBM:You say you can celebrate thriving communities. After 400 years, is the future for the Virginia tribes finally looking brighter?
Chief Adams:I believe we're doing very well. We've had people who have been away
for years come back into the community. Everybody wants to belong to
something. We members of the Upper Mattaponi have a desire to continue
our existence as a people. At one time we had our own school. When the
school closed, it disrupted our lifestyle. Now we use the building as
our meeting place. We hold powwows every year and homecomings. We
celebrate other events, as well, like our Christmas dinners. Jobs and
education take members of the community away. Some return. Some don't.
A core group lives within a few miles of the tribal center. And we have
some land we've purchased there. Our church is also right next to the
school. Even though the Upper Mattaponi don't have a reservation, they
still have a strong sense of community.
tribes are working to restore as much of our language as possible.
That's one of the positive things that came out of the Jamestown
commemoration. Linguists at Virginia universities are helping us
restore our language. And one of the people at the event in Great
Britain surprised us by saying the opening prayer in the Algonquian
recently asked to speak at a program at the Mariners' Museum for the
republication of a rare edition of the DeBray/White lithographs. This
is an example of how different things are now. Before, we might have
been told about it after it was done. Now we are asked to be a part. I
was able to talk about how the Indians in these late sixteenth and
early seventeenth century drawings were not just interesting to
scholars to study for their dress or habits. I could help them
understand that these were real people with lives and feelings and
families--these were my people.
I think the
Virginia Indians have a good solid future ahead of us. I am very
hopeful. I have a strong sense that our future is going to be a good
one. Even though we don't have federal recognition, we have a stronger
relationship with the state government than I can ever recall. Things
have changed so much for the Indians in Virginia the past fifty years.
It has been a radical change--coming from having little respect to
receiving some of the highest respect. It wasn't happenstance. It took
hard work within the Indian community and others outside the community
helping. We stuck together and made a serious effort to improve our
lot--and we've done so. If you look at the history of Virginia, you'll
see that there were efforts to extinguish the Indians. We've managed to
survive against seemingly insurmountable odds. That's a testament to
our parents and grandparents, who managed to hold on, establishing
tribal schools and churches. And to remain proud of their heritage.
Now we are
on the cusp of something great in Indian communities throughout this
land. Negative things that happened to Virginia Indians spread to
Indians across the United States. Now that positive things are
happening in Virginia, I believe these positive things will travel
across the United States. I believe when Indians are lifted up by these
positive measures, it will be beneficial to all of America. If you
truly believe in God and believe we were placed here for a reason, then
we have a role to play in God's eyes, and I believe you're going to see
that role played out in the next few years for all of America.