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Virginia's Indian tribes may benefit from land protection legislation

visiting native tribe housing
(Image: VPM News Focal Point)

Legislation in the General Assembly builds on a pledge made by former Gov. Ralph Northam to ensure access to land protection funding for Virginia’s tribes. Members of Virginia’s largest tribe, the Monacan Nation, share how the funding and changes to the state law would impact their educational and economic efforts. 

More on this story to come.



Miles: This place in Fluvanna County is known to the Monacan Nation as Rassawek. It's where Captain John Smith documented the Monacan people in 1607 and was the Monacan capital for thousands of years. 

Kenneth Branham: I feel like if we cannot protect that site, there's no site in Virginia that we'd be able to protect because of the significance to us. 

Miles: Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham is talking about the tribe's fight to protect Rassawek from a planned water treatment facility. He says he and other tribal members have no objection to the project but, there are other places along the James River that is just as good, if not better to put pump stations than on a sacred piece of property that may have our ancestor remains there. You know, you wouldn't disturb a large cemetery just to put a pump station when you can go a half mile down the road and put it up. 

Miles: The Monacans, other tribal nations and other people of color have more power behind their convictions because of former Virginia Governor Ralph Northam. Before leaving office, he pledged 22 million dollars to indigenous, Black and other citizens of color, to protect their culturally significant or sacred places. Also, Northam ordered that native tribes must have input before the state approves development projects.  

Former Governor Ralph Northam: Looking at the Native Americans, they were here long before people came from Europe. This was their land and that land was taken from them and so I've always felt it important to to respond to, to their needs and requests. 

Miles: Headquartered in Amherst County the push to protect and preserve history and honor Monacan ancestors has been ongoing. Years ago they acquired this property in Amherst, the site of a tribal school that dates back centuries, and they established a museum that houses images, artifacts, and untold stories. 

Branham: So this particular display here of course are pieces of pottery. This is stuff that was found on archeological digs in Fluvanna County up on the other side of Charlottesville. 

Miles: The tribal complex was just a start. A government cares grant has funded this complex with offices, a meeting hall, a community food pantry and both a clinic and a senior center in the works. 

Compton: We've found that you can't do anything in a tribe without land. Land is the basis for everything. So to actually have funds to buy land that historically was occupied by the Monacan tribe, is a great step forward. 

Miles: Along with that support and funding the tribe paid more than 5 million dollars for 1,300 acres they refer to as "the farm. And they have grand plans that may mean a subdivision, a wedding venue, and much more to benefit not only tribal members, but also the community at large. 

Hicks: I'm not bitter with the state of Virginia, but I think it's been a long time coming but not just for here in Amherst County and Virginia, all over this United States. We have more or less always been the underdog. 

Miles: The elders are seeing things beginning to change. Each says they don't feel entitled and don't expect handouts, but they also recognize there is the reality of what happened to their ancestors. And they say there is a welcome opportunity for state leaders and laws to try to restore some of what was taken. 

Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.