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Rappahannock Tribe’s return to the river

Rolling grassland
The vista at the reclaimed land at Fones Cliffs. (Photo: Angie Miles/VPM News)

After nearly 400 years, Virginia’s Rappahannock Indian tribe is again in possession of much of its ancestral home. Fones Cliffs, on the north side of the Rappahannock River in Richmond County, is where Capt. John Smith encountered the Rappahannock people in 1608.  The tribe is believed to have inhabited that area for thousands of years before. And with a sometimes tearful “Return to the River” celebration at the site on April 1, tribal Chief Anne Richardson announced that a new chapter has begun.

Richardson, who has been the tribal leader for nearly a quarter century, describes this achievement as the dream of generations of her people, now fulfilled. The 465 acres along the river are once again in the hands of those who fished, hunted, farmed and acted as caretakers of the land for thousands of years. As European settlers moved in, the land was lost to the Rappahannock people through violence and treachery, as was the case throughout the eastern United States. 

As tribal members and invited guests gathered under a large tent on a sunny spring day, the celebration commenced with an offering of sacred song performed by the drumming circle.  Chief Richardson’s remarks began with thanks to God “who through the laws of reciprocity has truly orchestrated this day of restoration for our tribe, bringing us full circle back to the beginning —  to renew the life of the tribe, to prepare our next generation of leaders for the future and ensuring that this sacred place is protected, with all its plants and animals which are so essential to the sustaining power of life for everyone.”

It took a number of partners to bring this dream to fruition for the Rappahannock people. Those partners include the tribe, the Chesapeake Conservancy and the Wilderness Society. The tribe also acknowledged gifts from the Angle family and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through Walmart’s Acres for America Program. Conservation is central for the future plans here. Fones Cliffs is a known habitat for bald eagles and a number of migratory birds, such as tundra swan, American black duck and large numbers of Canada geese.

Chief Richardson praised the special guest speaker, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, not only as the first Indigenous person to serve as a presidential cabinet member, but also for what Richardson describes as moving the country in the right direction with her land conservation initiatives. Haaland spoke through tears of her own in commending those who made the day possible. To the Rappahannock people, she said, “Your ancestors cherished this land for many generations and despite centuries of land disputes, shifting policies, your connection to these cliffs and to this river remain unbroken.”

These acres have withstood the threat of development for many years. In 2015, Richmond County awarded preliminary approval for an out-of-state development company to build a resort with golfing, equestrian sports, a large restaurant and hundreds of dwellings in the area. The current land holder has since declared bankruptcy, putting those plans in question. In 2017, former U.S. Senator John Warner and his daughter Virginia donated a single acre at Fones Cliffs to the Rappahannock people. That gift was the beginning of plans for tribal education on the land and presaged this larger acquisition. Plans for the 465 acres include educating the public through programs that focus on conservation, tribal culture and interpretive history. The tribe and its partners are also urging the public to assist with the acquisition of an adjacent 900+ acres to further protect Fones Cliffs from future development.

When John Smith chronicled his interactions with the Rappahannock people, he noted there were three large villages at the cliffs. They were Pissacoack, Matchopick and Wecuppom.  With their return to the river, the Rappahannock intend to rename the reacquired acreage Pissacoack.

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