Indigenous tribes in Virginia see stewardship as part their duty
When Native tribes gather for powwow, it’s like a family reunion and spiritual revival — a reminder of who they are as a people and an embrace of culture, language and heritage.
It’s also an educational opportunity for the public, which is often invited, to see that the natural world is as much a part of tribal identity today as it has been for centuries.
In September, the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia gathered in Surry County for its annual powwow. Tribal Councilmember Beth Roach pointed out the close connection with the natural world, evident through every aspect of the event.
“It's all rooted,” she said. “It's all tied together, and you see in our regalia, you see leather, you see shells, you see things that are from the natural world or feathers. So, it really shows up in every way of our life.”
Chief Lynette Allston emphasized that point, adding that the affinity for the natural world carries with it a serious responsibility.
“As Indigenous people, we are concerned about our environment,” she said. "We see how Mother Earth is beginning to rebel. We're having more floods, more droughts, more fires. And that's a sign that we have abused our world. And if we don't take care of the world, where are we going?”
Nottoway leaders said it’s been more than a decade since they began holding regular cleanup days along the river that bears the tribe’s name.
“We go out many times on paddles, just to keep the Nottoway River clear through our part of the territory where we still live,” Allston said. “Of course, with all of that, the air becomes better. So, we get clean air.”
Roach said the river efforts have increased tribal concern for the environment.
“The first year was really a mess. … We picked up over 30 tires. We picked up a whole bathroom suite — a toilet, a shower, a sink. Incredible. A whole trailer full of other trash bags,” she said. “And so, several years after that, we would go back and we were picking up some light, normal trash. But then all of a sudden, we realized that we were picking up really old trash — things that we hadn't seen in the past few years. And we started asking questions. ‘Why are we picking up beer bottles and cans from decades before?’ And then we learned that there was all this deforestation happening. And so, what started as a cleanup evolved [into] us trying to figure out what's happening more in our environment.”
When Native tribes gather to discuss policy, like they did at the annual Sovereignty Conference in Glen Allen in September, the environment is often the focal point. Indigenous environmental experts from all over the country spoke on the seriousness of what they deem a global crisis — pollution — as well as their unique ability as a people to lead the way to a healthier planet.
While speaking as a panelist on the topic of Indigenous-led conservation, Principal Chief of the Houma Lora Ann Chaisson said members of her tribe suffer from high rates of cancer, after being the first to respond to a major oil spill. She also said that because of climate change, her own property in Louisiana looks different than it did when she first bought it.
“We’re at the Gulf, and so that salt water just eats up the land,” she said. “And where I live, I own 10 acres of land. Twenty-one years ago, we were hunting deer. Now, I’m fishing in my backyard.”
“Areas that were dry land where our ancestors were are now underwater in many places,” said Casey Thornbrugh, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe who lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, who sat on the panel. “We know this because of our stories. Our stories tell of these changes.”
Thornbrugh is an educator and environmental scientist who serves as tribal climate science liaison with United South and Eastern Tribes and the Department of the Interior’s Northeast and Southeast Climate Adaptation Science Centers.
Daniel Cordalis joined the panel as a water rights lawyer and a former employee of the Department of the Interior.
He described his work with the Yurok in Northern California, the tribal home of his wife and their children. He said that for decades, the government gave reservation land to timber interests and allowed private businesses to dam the Klamath River. For the Yurok, that meant a damaged ecosystem and made subsistence fishing impossible.
“These dams are starting to be decommissioned and actually be removed,” Cordalis said. “It will be the biggest river restoration project in history.”
There appears to be a shift occurring throughout the country. Indigenous people who were cheated or forced off tribal lands during European colonization are now reacquiring some of what was theirs. The Rappahannock in Virginia, for example, announced in April the tribe had regained 465 acres at Fones Cliffs, ancestral homeland that is culturally and spiritually significant to the tribe. Soon, they plan to invite the public to visit the land and learn about the environment and indigenous ways.
Research shows that land managed by Indigenous people is as healthy as land managed by any other entity. Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson said reacquiring the land marks a new beginning for the tribe and realizes a dream held by her father and his ancestors.
“You know, my dad used to take me hunting, [or that’s what] he would call it, and I was just a young kid, probably 9 or 10 years old. And he would say, ‘Well, we’re going hunting.’ And we'd go out in the woods, and he would take the gun. Never used it,” Richardson said. “And we would sit and just watch the show that nature would put on for us. And he would teach me to watch the animals, because he said the animals held the wisdom of the ages. And we could learn from them.”
It was federal recognition, federal monies, and partnerships with a host of conservation agencies and private interests that enabled the reclamation of the cliffs. The tribe is once again guardian to hundreds of species of plants and animals. Rather than owning the land, the Indigenous way is less about ownership and more about mutual belonging.
“In the Western world, we're taught that everything is about human beings. I mean me, me. And we relegate animals and plants and water, and the sun, the elements, the trees, we relegate them to things, when they really aren't,” Richardson said. “We are really connected to all of them. We just don't know it because we've been taught differently. And so, my goal is to teach the truth about who we are, and how we interact and are connected to all those things, for the sake of all humanity and for the survival of the planet.”
In November, about 1,000 additional acres at Fones Cliffs are slated to be sold in a bankruptcy auction. Developers had made plans for a riverside resort at the property. The Rappahannock and their conservation-minded partners plan to attend the sale.
Richardson said she hopes to add this land to their protected holdings for conservation. For her, this opportunity is in keeping with the desires of her ancestors.
“It's very emotional for me … because it was a prophecy from my grandmother that in this hour, this very hour that we're living in, that the native people will be called upon to save the planet,” Richardson said, “I see these tribes stepping up, because it's their spiritual duty.”
Richardson said that land reclamation creates the chance to teach others the wisdom of her ancestors.