The winds blowing over what once was called Tsenacommacah seem to be finally changing direction.
The biggest change came in late January, when President Donald Trump’s signature on H.R. 984 granted federal recognition to six Indian tribes in eastern Virginia, a region known as Tsenacommacah and controlled by Chief Powhatan in the days when Europeans first arrived in Virginia.
The six groups receiving federal recognition — the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond — are considered to be descendant tribes of the Powhatan chiefdom. A seventh, the Pamunkey, received federal recognition in 2016. The Pamunkey own reservation lands, as does the state-recognized Mattaponi tribe.
Danielle Moretti-Langholtz recently discussed what federal recognition might mean for the tribal members and for William & Mary’s American Indian Resource Center (AIRC). She also talked about the role her mentor, Thomasina E. Jordan, had in both the quest for federal recognition of the Virginia tribes and the establishment of the AIRC. Moretti-Langholtz is director of the AIRC, based in the university’s Department of Anthropology. She also is curator of native American art at the university’s Muscarelle Museum.
The new recognition comes just after the Department of Anthropology graduated its first student from the newly added minor in native studies — Miles Reynolds. And the legislation was signed just before the American Indian Research Center adds a member. Ashley Atkins Spivey, a Ph.D. alumna of the Department of Anthropology, joins as tribal liaison and advisor on NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act 1990) and tribal historic preservation issues.
Spivey also is a member of the Pamunkey tribe. Moretti-Langholtz said Spivey’s appointment coming at the same time as federal approval is a fortunate coincidence.
“Ashley will be working with tribal members on a number of fronts,” she said. Moretti-Langholtz explained that the AIRC works to incorporate the viewpoints of tribal members into work involving their traditions and heritage, with particular attention to material remains.
“I really think that it’s wonderful that we’ll have a tribal member that’s one of our own Ph.D.s to work with the tribes,” Moretti-Langholtz said.
Moretti-Langholtz pointed out that the new recognition is the culmination of work by Indians led by Thomasina Jordan, who died in 1999. She said that it’s appropriate that H.R. 984, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017, carry the name of Jordan, also known as Red Hawk Woman.
“Thomasina Elizabeth Jordan was a member of the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts, but she had lived a good part of her life here in Virginia. I met her at a powwow and realized she was an exceptional woman and had amazing recall for history.”
As she was an anthropologist interested in native peoples in the area, Moretti-Langholtz began attending monthly meetings of the Virginia Council on Indians, chaired by Jordan. She said she was impressed by Jordan’s political skills as well as how she encouraged sometimes-reticent tribal leaders to engage with officeholders and political servants.
“I can remember her saying if you need a stop sign put up or a street light put up, it's a political process,” Moretti-Langholtz said. “You don't write a letter about it — you go to your delegate or your representative.”
Jordan became Moretti-Langholtz’s mentor — and also one of the forces behind the establishment of the AIRC in 1998. Even after being struck by cancer, Jordan continued her advocacy for federal recognition of the “first contact” Tribes of Virginia.
“Thomasina said the Virginia tribes deserved recognition, because they kept the colonizers more or less at bay for 200 years, giving the tribes in the interior of the country some breathing room,” Moretti-Langholtz said.
H.R. 984, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, will provide a number of benefits to the newly recognized tribes, including avenues to pursue repatriation of historical/cultural artifacts and access to federal programs. In terms of individuals, Moretti-Langholtz said the rolls of the six newly recognized tribes probably add up to around 5,000 members.
Moretti-Langholtz noted that typically a tribe seeking federal recognition will present a petition to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with extensive documentation about community history, genealogy, and proof of their political existence from 1900 with links to an historically identifiable community. Anthropologists, historians, genealogists and scholars at the BIA, review the documentation. The review process can take years.
She explained that federal recognition of tribes through legislation is quite rare. Most tribes, including the Pamunkey, achieve recognition through a rigorous Bureau of Indian Affairs process.
“The tribe will present a petition to the bureau,” Moretti-Langholtz explained. “Anthropologists look at it. Genealogists look at it. Thomasina said it could take thirty years.”
Efforts to attain recognition through the BIA process became bogged down by a perfect storm of circumstances, beginning with absence of formal treaties between the U.S. and the tribes — their ancestors had made peace with Britain before U.S. independence.
Moretti-Langholtz said it’s unclear just what the different routes to recognition may mean for the Pamunkey and the six recently recognized tribes — if anything. And she pointed out another curious fact: the legislation gives Virginia seven federally recognized Indian tribes and four state-recognized tribes. On the east coast, only New York has more federal tribes, with eight.