"Why have you and your friends come to this country?" asked Chief Powhatan of the captive explorer Captain John Smith in December 1607. That sensible question has never been answered to the complete satisfaction of the Virginia Indian tribes.
The numbers of this proud people, once declining, are now increasing. And their heritage and traditions have, in many ways, remained intact for more than four centuries and prevented their cultural annihilation.
When King Gustav VI Adolf of Sweden toured the Jamestown Festival Park several years ago, he diffidently asked whether he might meet a native American before leaving. "That will not be difficult," smiled his guide, introducing O. Oliver (Lone Eagle) Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, who was lecturing on Indian history in the park's reconstructed long house. He has also taught at the Syms-Eaton Museum in Hampton. A gentle, kindly man, he is conversant with tribal history and eager to share his knowledge.
Before the Treaty of 1677, when the Chickahominy surrendered their land, they had about 6,000 acres. "We lost everything we had, and almost our very identity ," says Chief Adkins. "Our history might not be as we wish it, but I give it as it is." The treaty announced that "The Respective Indian Kings and Queens doe henceforth acknowledge their immediate dependency on, and Own all Subjection to, the Great King of England, Our now dread Soveraigne."
The Chickahominy are located in Charles City County about 25 miles east of Richmond. Their identity has been preserved, and today about 700 Chickahominy Indians are incorporated as a tribal group under the leadership of Chief Adkins and a board of directors. Most members of the tribe work in Newport News, Richmond, or Hampton.
Chief Adkins has been active in Indian affairs on a national level and was instrumental in seeing that Title IV funds were extended to the Indians east of the Mississippi. Many Indian young people now attend college.
The Chickahominy Indian Fall Festival, held at the new Tribal Center in late September, plays an important part in unifying the tribe. "We are different from the Indians out West; we welcome outsiders to our ceremonial dances," says Adkins. Non-Indians often participate in the ceremonies. "We don't anticipate animosity," he says with a twinkle. The program usually features prayers, dances, anthems, the crowning of Miss Chickahominy, and speeches.
There are other scattered tribes in Virginia, but the most numerous, in addition to the Chickahominy, are the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey, who occupy the only remaining state reservations.
The 125-acre Mattaponi Reservation is in King William County 13 miles west of West Point, Va. The Mattaponi were one of the 32 tribes once ruled by Chief Powhatan and were among the last to sign the Treaty of Peace. The reservation was confirmed in 1658 by an act of the Virginia Grand Assembly. Many visits were made to the site of the current reservation by Powhatan and his brother Opechaneough, whose seat was at West Point.
Chief Jacob V. (Thundercloud) Custalow presides over the tribal museum, to which visitors are welcomed. He conducts a spirited tour, incorporating a lecture about Indian life and customs. "The culture of the Indians of yesterday was wood, stone, and bone," he explains, displaying a wooden mortar, stone knife , stone frying pan, axes, chisels, arrowheads, and many other artifacts.
The museum contains such interesting items as a loon headdress decoy and mounted birds, among them an osprey and a bufflehead duck. A necklace said to have been worn by Pocahontas and a tomahawk used by Opechaneough in the battles of 1622 and 1644 are on exhibit. Outside is a centuries-old canoe, burned out rather than dug out (a more efficient process); it was discovered by Chief Custalow in the Mattaponi River.
The museum has an intriguing personal quality; it is the family album and treasure trove of a people who have always fished, hunted, and lived close to the earth. There are photographs of generations of tribal chiefs paying the annual tribute to the governor of Virginia in lieu of taxes. A day is set aside for hunting, and whatever is caught is rendered just before Thanksgiving; it is usually venison, duck, turkey, or fish. "In 1981, the Great Spirit willing, we will pay the same tribute," says Custalow.
The Mattaponi River has abundant fish and clean water. Tribal members often extend fishing invitations to non-Indian friends and colleagues. One young Richmond executive spent a luckless day shad-fishing but felt worse for his hosts than for himself. "They think their hospitality is at fault if the fish aren't bitting."
The craft of potterymaking, lost to the Mattaponi women for several decades, was revived four years ago under the tutelage of Suzanne Kramer. Using reddish-brown river clay, they work in convivial groups, making imaginative cooking pots, busts, masks, bells, and other objects.
The Mattaponi now number about 300, with 77 living on the reservation, mostly senior citizens. They plant, fish, and trap. "It is harder now," says Chief Custalow. "Our energy needs are greater; people can't survive as they once did, with increasing light bills and less animal life. Still, there are a number of young families wanting to move back if we had the room. The bright lights didn't shine as brightly as they expected outside." Indians domiciled on the reservation are exempt from local and state (but not federal) taxes and are governed by the chief and the Tribal Council.
Off Route 633, also in King William County, is the 1,100-acre Pamunkey Reservation, assigned to the tribe in 1677. The tribe is now headed by Chief Tecumseh (Deerfoot) Cook. His son, Warren (Iron Bull) Cook, is on the Tribal Council and works for the state as a member of Gov. John N. Dalton's Employment and Training Council.
Chief Cook played a major part in designing the Pamunkey Museum, funded by the tribe and by federal grants and finished in 1979. The barrel-vaulted roof imitates the design of the Indian long house. The illustrated exhibits, showing how things were made, handled, used, and worn out, incorporates the latest in museum technology. "This is an educational museum," says Cook. "We may have almost too much terminology; schoolchildren don't always understand it."
The Pamunkey Indians have practiced the art of potterymaking continuously since aboriginal times. The historic black ware, dating at least from the early Woodland period, is now being made again. In 1931 government experts advised the tribe to shift to a rust-colored molded pottery with geometric designs, thought to be more salable. Now both are made and sold in the gift shop. Mary Wakawasa (Bubbling Brook) Bradby makes and sells pottery; she offers a warm welcome.
The Pamunkey Tribal Council deals with civic problems, allocation of land, and domestic problems. One worry is encroachment on the reservation. "Today people are still trying to take our land. Another suit over a boundary dispute is coming up next month, unbelievable in this day and time," says Chief Cook. At present 69 people live on the reservation and 600 to 700 live away. Land stays in the family as long as there is a family line; if a person moves away or has no children, it reverts after two years to the reservation. The Pamunkey Indians give an annual tribute to the governor, a practice which, according to oral history, has endured since 1677.
The Indians of eastern Virginia are few in number. But in a country where kith and kin are often dispersed and royalties ephemeral, they loom large: preservers of family ties, custodians of an ancient heritage, patricians of the New World.