North Carolina History Digital Textbook Project

We have a story to tell: Native peoples of the Chesapeake region

From the National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution

Surviving Poverty

Men Digging Clay for Pottery Making, Pamunkey Reservation, King William County, Virginia, 1918.

Men digging for clay for pottery making, Pamunkey Reservation, Virginia, 1918. Men Digging Clay for Pottery Making, Pamunkey Reservation, King William County, Virginia, 1918 Photo by Frank G. Speck, National Museum of the American Indian.
. About the photograph

When the Chesapeake tribes lost their lands, they also lost much of their access to the region’s rich natural resources. They were forced to fish in less bountiful creeks, rather than at prime spots they had always occupied on the rivers. They no longer owned large plots of land to plant and harvest crops. Still, many Native people found ways to survive by fishing, hunting, and farming as they had for hundreds of years. They also earned income by selling crafts, such as baskets and pottery, and taking other jobs near their homes.In this way they kept their connection to the land and its resources.1

Lacking good educational opportunities, Native Chesapeake people often had to work as low-paid laborers, and many lived in poverty. As the United States changed from an agricultural to an industrial society in the early twentieth century, economic opportunities developed in cities. Many Powhatan, Piscataway, and Nanticoke people sought work in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, New York, and Washington, D.C. While these jobs made it possible for many families to survive, they also made it more difficult for families to sustain their Native culture and for tribal communities to stay together.

Living with Racism

The Piscataway, Powhatan, and Nanticoke were subjected to racist social attitudes and laws that restricted their rights. Once reservations were lost, most Native Chesapeake peoples were classified as “free people of color.” Although they were not treated as terribly as enslaved African-Americans, Native peoples of the Chesapeake had far fewer rights than whites. They were segregated in churches, and were not allowed to legally marry white people in Maryland and Virginia.

We were the third race in a two-race state. I remember once traveling with my father, and we pulled into a gas station because I had to go to the bathroom and there was one marked “white” and one bathroom marked “colored.” I said, “Dad, what do I do?” — Chief Stephen Adkins (Chickahominy), Style Weekly, September 2004.

Getting a basic education was difficult. In the first half of the twentieth century, Native Americans were barred from attending white public schools in the District of Columbia. Native children in southern Maryland were not allowed to attend white schools, but were allowed to attend black schools. However, some parents refused to send their children to black schools because they wanted to maintain their Native identity. To get an education, Native children often went to an informal “school” at a relative’s or neighbor’s home, where they learned to read and write. Sometimes Native Americans were able to attend private parochial schools if their families were church members. Virginia and Delaware funded a tri-racial system of segregated schools for blacks, whites, and Indians. Native children who attended integrated schools were often the targets of racial hatred from other students.

There were bad feelings towards us when we were in school. We were harassed all the time by both the black and the white students just because we were different. — Reeva “Rose Eagle” Tilley (Rappahannock), published in: We’re Still Here. Richmond, Virginia: Palari Publishing, 2006.

Acquiring a college education was a virtual impossibility for Native Americans during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Affiliation with a church, however, occasionally opened a door for higher education. Chickahominy students
who attended their community’s Baptist Church in Virginia were able to attend Bacone College in Oklahoma, a college that was established by the American Baptist Church in 1880 to serve American Indians.

Virginia Health Bulletin announcing the Racial Integrity Act, 1924.

Virginia Health Bulletin announcing the Racial Integrity Act, 1924. Courtesy of the Eugenic Archives. Virginia Health Bulletin announcing the Racial Integrity Act, 1924. Courtesy of the Eugenics Archives. About the photograph

One of the most notorious examples of racism against the Native peoples of the Chesapeake region was the passage in 1924 of the Racial Integrity Act. The act was administered by a Virginia state official named Walter Plecker and others who sought to prevent interracial marriage. The law made it illegal for people to identify their race as Indian. It also implied that the Indian race no longer existed. Some members of Powhatan tribes were arrested for insisting that they were Indians; others were publicly humiliated when their children were expelled from white schools.

The law had a disastrous effect on the family and community structures of Virginia Native Americans. People were forced to move to other states so they could live freely and escape prejudice—travel when and where they wanted, marry who they chose to, and attend schools in their communities. The Racial Integrity Act remained an official law until it was overturned in 1967.

The worst thing about Plecker [was]… the community. People just left… You wonder how anyone could be so consumed with hate. — Chief Kenneth Adams, (Upper Mattaponi), Style Weekly, September 2004.

Political Activism and the Fight for Civil Rights

The tribes have had to fight hard to assert the civil rights that were denied them since colonial times. Activism heightened in the 1920s with the organization of the Second Powhatan Confederation in Virginia and the founding of the Nanticoke Indian Association in Delaware. In 1961, members of Chesapeake tribes joined more than 500 Native people representing 90 tribes and bands assembled at the American Indian Chicago Conference to exchange information and discuss the development of a formal statement of Native American social, economic, and political aspirations.

During the 1960s and 1970s, some Piscataways were involved in the American Indian Movement, a nationwide Native effort to draw attention to the ongoing problems in Native communities and to encourage the U.S. government to honor its treaty-based commitments to tribal governments. Members of the American Indian Movement participated in a week-long takeover of the Bureau of Indian Affairs building in Washington, D.C., in 1972, and the Longest Walk of 1978.2 This protest action involved several hundred Native Americans who walked from San Francisco to New York City.

The Nanticokes at Bridgeton, New Jersey, were actively involved with national American Indian issues in the 1970s. At the same time, the Nanticoke Indian Association in Delaware focused on strengthening their tribal organization. This involved chartering and incorporating the tribe as a legal business.3 Powhatans were also active in the Coalition of Eastern Native Americans, an organization that was founded to secure recognition and eligibility for federal services for tribes that are not officially recognized by the federal government. In 1982, the Virginia Commonwealth created what is now known as the Virginia Council on Indians. This organization includes representatives from the eight tribes that are officially recognized by the state, and is responsible for conducting research and proposing recommendations on issues that affect American Indians in Virginia.

Chesapeake Native Communities Today

As a result of hard-won civil rights, participation in the Indian rights movement, and a strong commitment to fostering ethnic pride, all Native peoples have experienced a cultural and political renaissance over the past thirty years. In the Chesapeake region, the Powhatan, Nanticoke, and Piscataway peoples have also established new structures of governance and new avenues for cultural expression within their communities. Today, chiefs in most cases are still the main leaders of Chesapeake regional tribes. In some communities, chiefs are elected and serve a term. An elected tribal leader may also be called a chairperson. In other tribes, chiefs are still hereditary and hold lifelong positions. Most tribes also have councils that advise chiefs and vote on decisions. Gatherings such as social dinners, ceremonies, and powwows are now commonplace, and help to keep a sense of community alive.

In the twenty-first century, tribal members generally live in the same ways as their non-Indian neighbors. There is, however, a continuation of certain practices including hunting, farming, and cultural arts that draw on ancestral traditions. The Pamunkey people have made significant efforts to maintain their tradition of pottery making. Powhatan, Nanticoke, and Piscataway people also maintain oral traditions, or stories and other teachings, that instruct their children about unique Native ways of relating to the natural world. These oral teachings sustain the children’s identities as Native peoples.

When we dance at the powwow we feel the Great Spirit is here. When you see hawks circling overhead while dancers are in the circle in their regalia, you know the Great Spirit is here. — Assistant Chief Earl Bass (Nansemond), published in: We’re Still Here. Richmond, Virginia:
Palari Publishing, 2006.

Photograph of four members of a 2006 tribal delegation to England.

Photograph of four members of a 2006 tribal delegation to England, in contemporary ceremonial regalia. Pictured from left to right are Wayne Adkins (Chickahominy), Jacob Fortune-Deuber (Rappahannock), Ben Adams (Upper Mattaponi), and Glenn Canaday (Chickahominy). Photo by Katherine Fogden, National Museum of the American Indian, 2006. About the photograph

The Nanticoke and Piscataway tribes have made strong efforts to revive annual ceremonial practices. The current Piscataway Green Corn ceremony honors the
most abundant harvest. It also honors and gives special recognition to women and children. The Piscataways believe that corn is female and the kernels are her children. For this reason, corn and women are honored because they are givers of life. Nanticokes are also participating in cultural exchanges with Lenapes in Canada and Oklahoma to gain a better understanding of specific dances. Other tribal members are actively involved in preserving the ancestral traditions that remain, as well as revitalizing those that were lost, including the languages.4