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Acknowledgement of Indigenous Peoples as the Historical Custodians of the Land at William & Mary

Like peer institutions around the country, William & Mary seeks formally to acknowledge the original Indigenous inhabitants of the state-owned land on which the Williamsburg campus resides, and has partnered with their present-day descendants to create appropriate language. After consultation and input from VA Tribal leaders in August 2020, President Rowe approved the following statement:

William & Mary acknowledges the Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands our campus is on today – the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Upper Mattaponi, and Rappahannock tribes – and pay our respect to their tribal members past and present.

What is a Land Acknowledgement and why does it matter?

The practice of Land Acknowledgement represents a commitment to a culture of inclusion that begins with recognizing the Indigenous peoples of our region. At William & Mary, respect for our region’s complex history and the university’s place in it is an essential part of our teaching and research mission. Acknowledging the Indigenous inhabitants of the land as historical custodians is important regardless of whether Indigenous people have legal ownership of the land on which an event is taking place. This is because the relationship of Indigenous people to their traditional homelands incorporates more than just ownership or occupation of land. Importantly, in most cases Indigenous peoples in Virginia have been removed from the majority of their ancestral territory and today only two tribes continue to reside on Reservation lands first established through treaty negotiations that took place in the mid 17th century.

Virginia’s complex history of colonization had devastating and far-reaching effects on Indigenous people. Williamsburg and William & Mary are no exceptions given the colonial legacies of Virginia’s Indigenous people to these places. These legacies included treaty negotiations, economic ties and relationships and the attendance of Virginia Indian boys at the College’s Brafferton Indian School. These historical and colonial connections with Virginia Indians must be understood and acknowledged on campus and we hope within the wider Williamsburg community. Acknowledgement promotes awareness of and respect for Indigenous culture, ending the history of silence and exclusion that has resulted in Indigenous disadvantages today.

Formal Land Acknowledgement is a concrete and affirmative part of larger commitments W&M has made to partner with our historically-linked Indigenous communities. Over the past 20 years, W&M and representatives of VA Tribes historically linked to this area have worked together to:

  • Establish the Virginia Indian oral history project which resulted in the making of a documentary called “Voices of Virginia Indians” with funding from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, in 2003
  • Testify before both the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs (2002) and the 112th U.S. Congressional Committee on Indian Affairs (2012) in support of Federal Recognition for Virginia Indian Tribes
  • Create accurate and culturally sensitive educational materials for classroom educators in partnership with the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, 2003-7
  • Conduct research in support of the successful state recognition efforts of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe and the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia (2007-10)
  • Establish the Werowocomoco Research Group, an all-Native Advisory Board to work with W&M archaeologists, students and community members to formulate research questions, review archaeological reports and publications from 2003-2011
  • Identify and work to protect archaeological sites and locations of Native cultural patrimony in the Commonwealth of Virginia, such as Werowocomoco in Gloucester County, Virginia
  • Nominate archaeological sites and historic places for landmark status on the National Register of Historic Places (Sharon Indian School/Upper Mattaponi Tribe in 2007)
  • Establish the Brafferton Legacy Group during the 2011-13 renovations of the historic building to offer advice on the implications of the building’s history and prominence to descendant communities
  • Conduct research on behalf of the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for their Underrepresented Communities Grant Program (Historic Preservation Fund) with the Mattaponi Indian Tribe, the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia and the Sappony Tribe of Virginia/North Carolina (2016-17)
  • Contribute to the research for the establishment of the new Werowocomoco National Park in Gloucester County, VA (2017-present)
  • Compile the archive of the papers of Chief Emeritus Oliver Perry of the Nansemond Indian Tribe, and donate the papers to the Special Collections Research Center at W&M Libraries (2019)
  • Conduct research on the history of the Brafferton Indian School at William & Mary and contribute to the 2016-17 exhibition and 2019 publication of Building the Brafferton: The Founding, Funding and Legacy of America’s Indian School (2006-2016)
  • Hold a training workshop on the rights and responsibilities of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 for federally recognized tribes in Virginia (2019)
  • Consult with federally recognized Virginia Tribes to devise a plan for the proper implementation of NAGPRA to repatriate culturally-affiliated human remains and objects of cultural patrimony, with a grant from the National Park Service (2019-present)

In sum, using acknowledgements in official events at William & Mary or in other ways:

  • Recognizes Indigenous people as the First People and original custodians of the land
  • Promotes awareness of the history and culture of Indigenous people
  • Formally acknowledges Indigenous people’s ongoing connection to land in general to Williamsburg and William & Mary specifically
Who has contributed to creating this language?

We thank W&M’s American Indian Resource Center and Native Studies program, the Anthropology Department, as well as the leadership of the Nansemond Indian Nation, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe, the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia and the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia, with whom the president’s office consulted in August 2020 before approving this statement.

Using acknowledgement language at events

We invite the William & Mary community and its various academic departments to integrate the practice of acknowledgement into your public programs as appropriate. Please respect the process of consultation by not changing the approved language above. At in person events, that language might be incorporated into opening remarks by a host, as follows:

“Please join me in acknowledging and paying respect to the Indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the land we are on today, the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Upper Mattaponi, and Rappahannock tribes, and pay our respect to their tribal members past and present.”

For more information please contact:

Danielle Moretti-Langholtz
Director, American Indian Resource Center
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Ashley Spivey
W&M’s Tribal Liaison, American Indian Resource Center
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