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Wolf Creek Cherokee tribal council member Jeffery Ladd (from left), Annette Price and Chief Terry Price (center) participate with others in a drum circle at the Wolf Creek headquarters in eastern Henrico County. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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The Wolf Creek Indian Museum features an extensive collection of artifacts. Many were found in the Richmond area by tribe members. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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This stone effigy was recently found by Wolf Creek members atop the ground in Henrico County. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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This token etched with what looks like a salamander was used in trade, according to Wolf Creek member Annette Price. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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In 2011, leaders of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation presented the Pamunkey Indian Museum Committee with a replica of the silver frontlet given to Cockacoeske, queen of the Pamunkey, at the 1677 Middle Plantation treaty signing. Ashley Atkins Spivey (center right) is director of the Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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The Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center. (Photo by Jay Paul)
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Items on display at the Pamunkey museum include a recreated coat that distinguished Indian emissaries as friendly when traveling into English territory. (Photo by Jay Paul)
After centuries of persecution and marginalization, Native Americans are finally gaining a measure of societal respect. More Virginians are laying claim to American Indian heritage, and one tribe, the Pamunkey, in July became the first in the commonwealth to gain federal recognition. That’s given hope to other long-established tribes, such as the Rappahannock, though some, like the Wolf Creek Cherokee in Henrico County, still struggle to be acknowledged.
The drum circle begins with an offering of a sacred herb and a prayer.
Circle leader Andrew Tyler passes around the herb, a pouch of tobacco — appropriately enough, Drum brand — to the five men and two boys surrounding the massive instrument. Each places a pinch of crumpled leaves on its head.
In Cherokee, Tyler quietly prays. And then he switches to English, and asks God’s blessing of this gathering, and gives thanks for the fellowship and community.
They play, eyes affixed on the drumhead, but also watching Tyler. He makes a chopping motion with his free left hand to keep his charges in sync, and periodically points at one of the boys, then down at the drum to get him focused on the business at hand.
Their primal beat resonates throughout the body, accompaniment to a chant that leaves fine hairs on end. It’s like a Philip Glass score deconstructed to its essence.
It’s a sultry summer evening at the Wolf Creek Cherokee Museum, which opened in June on Osborne Turnpike in eastern Henrico County. This is a practice session for the boys and men, members of the Wolf Creek tribe headquartered here.
A couple of dozen onlookers and neighbors are politely curious and attentive. Besides being a time of fellowship for drum circle participants, it’s a living connection to the past, a way to impart a sense of belonging and continuity to a new generation, to instruct the boys in the ways of the tribe and give them a sense of discipline, to show them who they are and where they came from, says Jeffery Ladd, a Wolf Creek tribal council member and a drum circle participant.
“We are trying to have fun and teach the kids, but it is really a culture we’re trying to teach them,” he says. “The drum was [once] outlawed, but we still did it, because it’s our culture.”
Drumming and many ceremonial practices of American Indians were discouraged or even outright banned for many years as the government and society in general sought to force native people to conform to the dominant culture’s standards.
Now, it’s a culture in resurgence. More Americans are celebrating their native identity, including American Indians. And after centuries of abuse and marginalization, they’re seeking to reclaim their heritage and they want governmental recognition of their tribes — which sounds straightforward, but as with any dealings with a governmental entity, nothing is simple.
Just one tribe in Virginia, the Pamunkey, has earned federal recognition, a status that carries with it tangible benefits including access to federal money for health, education and welfare.
Federal recognition is exceedingly hard to attain, as other Virginia tribes that have applied for it have discovered. One, the Rappahannock, first applied in the 1920s. A lack of records and strict criteria have hampered efforts to seek approval through the administrative process, and attempts to gain approval for six of the tribes through federal legislation have repeatedly died since 2000 without being brought to a vote.
Even gaining state recognition, a status that has been attained by 11 tribes in Virginia since the 1980s, can be hard to attain, as the Wolf Creek discovered this past year when a resolution filed on their behalf stalled in a General Assembly committee.
It basically comes down to records and continuous ties to the land, and both are in short supply for most American Indian tribes in Virginia. So while it’s easy to claim Native American identity on your census form, seeking recognition of tribal identity can be problematic.
The Pamunkey are a rarity, able to continuously hold on to reservation lands allotted in the 1600s. And they also were lucky, as they’ll tell you, in being able to survive.
And as for the Wolf Creek, they just want a handshake from the governor, says Chief Terry Price. But official recognition from any governmental entity may prove problematic. The tribe has no affiliation with the three federally recognized Cherokee nations. The land that the tribe claims as its homeland was a hunting ground, not an area of permanent settlement for the Cherokee.
The Wolf Creek
There’s a serene sense of assuredness about Price, who also celebrates his culture in a playful way with the name of his business, Tomahawk Heating and Air.
He says there are 160 members of this clan, all related, all tracing their origins back to ancestors who laid low in Southwest Virginia as most of the Cherokee moved West in the early 1800s.In what is known as the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee people were forced from their homelands in the South and resettled on federally approved lands in what is now Oklahoma.
The Wolf Creek people stayed in the hills and hollows around the Patrick County creek from which they take their tribal name. They survived over the ensuing generations by blending in with the community, but they lived apart. Many of them stayed on the move, road warriors of a different sort, going wherever a living could be made.
Some went to West Virginia to mine coal. Others moved to Richmond in search of employment.
Price is part of that branch. When the previous chief, Gene Griffith in Patrick County, decided in July 2014 to pass on his duties, the Wolf Creek operations and museum were moved to Henrico. About 85 to 90 members of the tribe now live in the area, says Annette Price, the chief’s wife.
Better schools and employment opportunities were the prime attractions, she says. “People are going to go where they can find work.”
After most of the Cherokee were forced from their lands in the 1830s, the Wolf Creek’s ancestors found themselves isolated both geographically and by the inherent prejudices and practices of the times. The Wolf Creek people kept quiet about their Cherokee heritage to the community at large and continued to live on their land, Annette Price says.
“They didn’t want to stay native because they were treated so bad,” Terry Price says.
That was a common occurrence, as American Indians and people of mixed descent were subjected to an array of abuses and discriminatory practices across the nation, and especially in the South, says Greg Smithers, an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University who specializes in Native American history and Cherokee studies.
“I have some sympathy for the Wolf Creek Cherokees, as it is the case that the history of colonialism in Cherokee country meant that some people went undocumented simply to survive,” Smithers says.
Native Americans in the South kept a low profile into the Jim Crow era, but they kept their stories alive. Like African-American families, American Indians passed on knowledge, traditions and customs around the kitchen table, according to Smithers.
Mainstream institutions weren’t to be trusted. Babies were born at home, even as recently as the 56-year-old Price, whose grandmother served as a midwife.
Many crucial records were lost because of Walter Plecker, champion of eugenics and ruler of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from the 1920s into the 1940s. He saw Virginians as being either black or white, and left no opportunity to list Indian as a person’s heritage. Records were revised, expunged, even burned. Based on name alone, Plecker ordered the reclassification of official records of whole families and tribes.
“The identities of people were taken away from them,” Annette Price says. “It’s very hard for some people to regain their identity.”
And yet, the parents and grandparents of the current generation of Wolf Creek members persevered. It was and is a close-knit connection, in which “tribe” is interchangeable with “family.” Even without official documents, Wolf Creek members were able to maintain the culture, says Ladd, who is also a nephew of Price.
“Plecker made quite a mess,” he says. “It was a setback in some ways, but [they’ve] never been able to stop us from being who we are.”
Annette Price says that it’s taken 20 years of work to compile a tribal lineage that goes back 10 generations to show the connection with the Cherokee.
The Wolf Creek also suffered in the era of segregation, into the 1960s, Terry Price says. As a child, he was the target of discrimination, because, he says, “I was too dark.”
He says that in elementary school, teachers would ignore him when he would raise his hand to answer a question, or even when he was seeking permission to go to the bathroom.
His father, fresh from the Army, was denied a drink in a bar because he was Native American — even a non-alcoholic beverage, the chief says.
Views evolved and change has come. Wolf Creek members find greater acceptance now in the general population, but prejudices remain.
Ladd notes that one of the more subtle, but cruelest, forms of prejudice is being the target of silent treatment — to be ignored, as the chief was by his schoolteacher. Such isolation and neglect has been inflicted on generations of tribe members, even now.
“Things have come a long way, but we still have hurdles to jump,” he says. “You still have that silent treatment.”
We’re Still Here
One common thread among many American Indians, especially those along the East Coast, is that they want their neighbors to know that the tribes are still in existence and active. That was the theme of the 2000 book We’re Still Here, Contemporary Virginia Indians Tell Their Stories, by Sandra F. Waugaman and Danielle Moretti-Langhotlz, an anthropologist at the College of William & Mary.
That book gives insights into tribes recognized by the state of Virginia, including the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi, the Chickahominy, the Eastern Band of Chickahominy, the Rappahannock, the Nansemond, the Upper Mattaponi and the Monacan. The Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), the Nottoway (a separate group from the Cheroenhaka) and the Patawomeck have also gained state recognition.
The Wolf Creek people filed for recognition by Virginia earlier this year, with a resolution sponsored by Sen. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, in the General Assembly.
The McEachin resolution was a simple acknowledgment of the Wolf Creek band that gave no recognition of the group as a sovereign entity, or any of the rights or privileges that would carry. It also included language that noted the state did not address whether the tribe had been in continuous existence.
The resolution was tabled in the House Rules Committee, where a separate measure was introduced this year that would formalize the process to be followed for all tribes in seeking state recognition.
That measure would create a joint commission on Virginia Indian recognition, according to its sponsor, Del. Christopher Peace, R-Hanover. Tribes would have to meet standard criteria, and their application would be reviewed by the commission, which in turn would make a recommendation to the General Assembly.
Peace says that there was general bipartisan support for the measure, but that composition of the joint commission members was a sticking point (the Senate wanted equal numbers appointed by each body, while the House favored proportional appointment).
Wolf Creek members just want the state to acknowledge that they’re here, and have been here for generations.
They have not sought to affiliate with any of the three recognized Cherokee entities because they are a separate tribe, Terry Price says.
“We want to be recognized here,” Ladd says. “Our families are here.”
The Pamunkey: People of the Treaty
The Pamunkey tribe’s federal petition was exceptionally well documented. Members drew from an amazing array of original observations from Colonial and early American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson and Capt. John Smith, and from obscure tax, church and court records.
The tribe can trace its history to the pre-Colonial Powhatan confederacy. It is one of only two in Virginia that were able to continuously hold onto at least a portion of their original homeland.
Theirs is 1,200-acres tucked on a bend of the Pamunkey River next to King William County. They’ve held this land through a treaty with King Charles II from 1677. It’s the key to the success of the federal petition, and more important, it’s been critical in the Pamunkey’s survival as a people.
The treaty is known as the Articles of Peace at Middle Plantation, and after the American Revolution, the new federal government continued to recognize it. For 337 years, Pamunkey members have honored the treaty’s terms in a very visible way, by bringing a tribute to the governor in lieu of paying taxes.
The tribute was a requirement that now involves a bit of showmanship: Each Thanksgiving at the State Capitol, members of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes, original signers of the treaty, make a presentation to the governor. Last year, it was two deer (donated to charity to feed the hungry) and traditional, handcrafted gifts of jewelry and dancing sticks.
It’s visual, tangible proof that the tribes are here and active, not relegated to history and legend, according to Ashley Atkins Spivey, director of the Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center on the reservation.
Even with the treaty, the Pamunkey people faced loss of their land, but that they continued to uphold their end of its terms proved crucial to their survival.
“Some of it is just pure luck,” Spivey says. “But the heart of it is that we were tributary Indians.”
When squatters invaded their land, when local residents attempted to sell off the property in the 1800s, or when the tribe members’ right to hunt or fish or use their land was questioned, the Pamunkey cited the treaty.
“When anything came up, we fought,” Spivey says.
The land helped the tribe maintain its identity in other ways, too.
The rural, isolated geography of the place helped protect the Pamunkey. Many Eastern tribes were forced from their homelands and either relegated to marginal, unwanted land or left without a homeland whatsoever. The Pamunkey reservation was a small portion of the tribe’s original land, but its members were at home there.
It’s an area rich in natural resources that the Pamunkey had always made use of. They could still fish, hunt and farm, and they also were able to adapt those skills and survive economically.
Pamunkey women were proficient potters, and Spivey notes that they were able to use their traditional skills in a new way, producing European-style works to sell on the local market.
The men engaged in fishing industries along the East Coast, and served as hunting guides. Pamunkey trappers provided the 19th and early 20th centuries’ fashion industry with muskrat, mink and raccoon fur.
“That was our experience,” Spivey says. “It’s the land that’s led to the community survival as a whole.”
The Rappahannock: Homeland Reclaimed
For the Rappahannock tribe of Indian Neck in Virginia’s King and Queen County, traditions are passed on to youth through a series of classes held since 1997, in art, dance and drumming, as well as through classwork and cultural studies. It’s more frequent in the summer, but the efforts are ongoing throughout the year, Chief Anne Richardson says.
Like the Pamunkey, the Rappahannock had signed treaties in the 1600s, but by the early years of the 18th century, their lands were lost. They were lucky to survive. Many tribes ceased to exist, and the overall native population along the coastal plains declined from an estimated 20,000 at the time of the first contact with European settlers to about 1,800 by the late 1600s, according to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources and the Prince William Network, a service of Prince William County Public Schools.
The Rappahannock later moved back to the area of their original homestead, Richardson says. Now, they have built a cultural center that serves as the focal point of tribal activity. The center eventually also will be home to a museum.
As with other tribes, the Rappahannock have been willing to do whatever it takes to survive.
“We are a very adaptable people,” says Richardson. “It doesn’t change the people.”
Her election in 1998 is proof of that adaptability. She’s the first woman to lead a Virginia tribe since the 1700s, according to the tribal website.
The Rappahannock gained recognition from the state in the 1980s, and first applied for federal recognition in the 1920s. Richardson says that the Rappahannock may now seek federal recognition through the Indian Bureau process.
“Now that the broken process with the bureau has been fixed, that’s something that we will pursue,” she says.
A Sense of Identity
There are many groups across the United States like the Wolf Creek that self-identify as Indian, but have no formal state or federal status.
For most of the recognized tribes, identity is tied to the land, like the Pamunkey, but that tie is tenuous for the Wolf Creek and for many Native Americans whose families were forced to move about in search of work.
That was a common experience for native people across the Eastern United States in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to Smithers, author of The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement and Identity, released in September by Yale University Press.
Smithers notes that a sizable number of Cherokee headed to California for the Gold Rush there, then when the gold played out, took steamers to Australia when the rush was on for gold on that continent. Today, there are large populations of Cherokee in California and Hawaii, with Cherokee families also scattered across the nation.
“They put down roots far away from their ancestral homelands,” Smithers says.
Census statistics from 2010 bear that out: About 78 percent of American Indians live outside native areas.
There was a revitalization of native culture with the civil rights movement and the movement toward self-determination for Native Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. Since then, there has been an enhanced self-awareness of native people, Smithers says.
There has also been a greater awareness in the general population, aided by an increased exposure to native culture, courtesy of Hollywood, and a general ethnic revival as more Americans have come to celebrate their diversity, he notes.
In fact, the number of people identifying themselves as Native American has exploded. According to census data, there was a 39 percent increase in the number of Americans who identified as Native American from 2000 to 2010. There was a 53 percent increase in the number of Virginians who identified themselves as Native American in that period.
Preserving the Past
The key outreach for the Wolf Creek people is their museum.
There’s an interesting array of Native American artifacts on display here, and Annette Price is an able tour guide, describing uses of each piece. In one case, there’s an exceptionally large, crude stone tomahawk head, likely the oldest piece in the museum, according to archaeologists. Across the way is a reproduction of a shield crafted from a turtle shell, something that would have served a warrior well in combat, at least until blunderbusses came into play.
The museum’s story is a mélange, a bouillabaisse of time periods, ethnicities, the real and replications. Relics come from a mix of Native American tribes. Many were found locally, but others came from elsewhere.
It’s an exceptional assemblage, according to Jack Hranicky, an Arlington County-based professional archaeologist and specialist in Paleo-Indian culture and tools. The museum pieces are well displayed and the artifacts represent a wide span of prehistory, he says.
One intriguing piece is a crude human effigy crafted from stone that the Wolf Creek members found near Richmond on top of the ground, Hranicky says. There’s also a stone pipe carved into a wolf head shape that’s exceptional.
The museum is Native American history told broadly, not just the story of the Wolf Creek people. That’s a story best told by the tribal members at the museum.
And at that, they excel.
On this night at the drum circle, Annette Price gives informal tours to visitors before and between drumming sessions. She and a niece, Ashley Morris, and her daughter, Suzanne Grubbs, practice dance moves to the beat and the chant, slowly dipping and turning off to a side.
As the evening comes to an end, visitors ask questions, learn, make new friends and talk of their experiences.
The Wolf Creek want to expand the museum exhibitions to the grounds, where they would construct reproductions of a longhouse and a canoe, to give visitors a better understanding of life in the 1600s and 1700s. They pay for the museum and the outreach through donations.
There are a few more showing up each session, and additional visitors to the museum each Saturday. There have been about 500 visitors in the first two months of operation, says Terry Price.
With each visit, a few more people discover the Wolf Creek and their story, and that the Native American experience continues and endures.
“It’s an active, current culture. It’s still in place,” says Jeffery Ladd.
“We’ve done it our whole lives,” says Terry Price. “We are who we are.”
Federal Recognition Presents a Steep Hurdle
State recognition for a tribe is a nice gesture akin to having a day dedicated in your honor. But there are tangible benefits to federal recognition, a status attained so far by just one Virginia tribe, the Pamunkey.
For starters, members of federally recognized tribes can apply for educational and health benefits. Tribal lands are not necessarily subject to taxes on property or income earned on the reservation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Also, items sold on tribal lands may or may not be exempt from sales tax, depending on the tribe. That’s because recognized tribes are regarded as entities with special rights. Tribal participation and consent is required in any decision concerning property or members. The tribes aren’t independent nations as in the sense of foreign nations, but instead are independent of state and local regulation, while still complying with federal policy.
There are three paths to federal recognition: through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, through Congress or through the judiciary.
The Pamunkey worked through the bureau, which has an administrative process that consists of seven mandatory criteria that must be met. For approval, the Pamunkey had to show:
• That they had been identified as a tribe on a continuous basis since 1900.
• That they have been a distinct tribal community from historical times to present.
• That they had maintained authority over members from historical times to present.
• That they show a governing document with membership criteria or governing structure.
• That they descend from a historic tribe or tribes.
• That most members are not members of some other federally recognized tribe.
• And that they are not subject to a congressional action that would prevent a federal relationship.
The administrative process is the most commonly followed today, but its documentation process is hard for many tribes to comply with, since so many records of American Indians were lost or destroyed over time. It’s also hard to comply with the criteria of showing continuous distinct tribal community and government.
Congressional approval requires no such specific hoops, but is difficult to attain because of all that is entailed in getting federal legislation written and passed.
This year, six Virginia tribes — the Chickahominy and Eastern Chickahominy, the Monacan, the Nansemond, the Rappahannock and the Upper Mattaponi — are vying for recognition via the legislative process, with bipartisan support of the legislative delegation. The U.S. Senate version was introduced by U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and the House version was filed by Rep. Robert Wittman, R-1st.
Various iterations of the act have been introduced in Congress since 2000, though, without success. The judicial approach is rare, and involves filing and winning a suit in federal court.
The Wolf Creek Cherokee Museum
Exhibitions of Cherokee and Native American culture and artifacts, and a large collection of stone tools and arrowheads, can be found at 7400 Osborne Turnpike in eastern Henrico County. 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, free admission. 226-1002 or wolfcreekcherokee.com.
Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center
Extensive exhibitions, well documented and scholarly, yet easily accessible, tell the story of the Pamunkey in the context of a history of the area from the first indigenous people of North America to the present. 75 Lay Landing Road, King William; call 843-4792 to check hours of operation before you go; look up the museum’s Facebook page, since the tribe’s website (pamunkey.net) is undergoing renovation.
The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement and Identity
This book by VCU associate professor Greg Smithers (Yale Press, $40) is a good resource. Smithers will present a Virginia Historical Society class on “The History of Virginia’s Indians” on Nov. 5 and Nov. 12; $50 for historical society members, $65 for nonmembers; 5:30 to 7 p.m. each night, at the VHS. Smithers also will present a Banner lecture on his book at noon on Dec. 3 at the historical society; $6 adults, $5 seniors, $4 for children, and no charge to members. 358-4901 or vahistorical.org.
“Native American Art: The Robert and Nancy Nooter Collection”
Works from more than 50 American Indian cultures are included in an ongoing exhibition at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. Free; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, open until 9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. 340-1400 or vmfa.museum.
Web Extra: We spent a day at Wolf Creek Cherokee Museum to learn about drum circles and the significance of Native American cultural traditions...WATCH here.