Issue: June 2007
FEATURE DESTINATION: Who Invited the English, Anyway?


by Jody Argo Schroath
photographs by Starke Jett

With 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.

After all, 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.

When the 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 Virginia's Indians.

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 seeking recognition?

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 the Indians.

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.

But still 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.

What I 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.

Also, the 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 language.
I was 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.