The native tribes of Virginia view stewardship as part of their duty

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For more on Indigenous Land Protection in Virginia, watch VPM Focal Point News at 8 p.m. Thursday.

When Native tribes gather for a powwow, it is like a family reunion and spiritual renewal – a reminder of who they are as a people and an embrace of culture, language and heritage.

It is also an educational opportunity for the public, who are 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 their annual powwow. Tribal council member Beth Roach emphasized the strong connection to the natural world evident through all aspects of the event.

Nottoway Chief Lynette Allston attends the tribe’s powwow in September. She says Indigenous peoples are responsible for the land around them. (Photo: Angie Miles/VPM News)

“It’s all rooted,” she said. “It’s all connected, and you see in our badges, you see leather, you see shells, you see things that come from the natural world or feathers. So it really shows in all aspects of our lives.

Chief Lynette Allston underscored this point, adding that affinity for the natural world comes with a heavy responsibility.

“As Indigenous people, we are concerned about our environment,” she said. “We see how Mother Earth is starting to rebel. We have more floods, more droughts, more fires. And that’s a sign that we’ve abused our world. And if we don’t take care of the world, where are we going?”

Nottoway leaders said it was more than a decade since they began holding regular clean-up days along the river that bears the tribe’s name.

“We go out and paddle a few times, just to keep the Nottoway River clear in our part of the territory where we still live,” Allston said. “Of course, with all that, the air becomes better. Thus, we get clean air.

Roach said the river’s efforts have heightened tribal concerns for the environment.

“The first year was really a mess. … We picked up over 30 tires. We picked up a whole bathroom – a toilet, a shower, a sink. Unbelievable. A whole trailer full of more trash bags,” she said. “And so, several years after that, we were going back there and picking up light and normal litter. But all of a sudden we realized we were picking up some really old trash – stuff we hadn’t seen in the past few years. And we started asking questions. “Why are we picking up bottles and cans of beer decades ago?” And then we learned that there was all this deforestation happening. And so, what started as a cleanup evolved [into] we try to understand what is happening more in our environment.

A person wearing ceremonial clothes is dancing
A dancer performs at the Nottoway powwow in September. (Photo: Angie Miles/VPM News)

When Native tribes come together to discuss politics, as they did at the annual sovereignty conference in Glen Allen in September, the environment is often the focal point. Indigenous environmental experts from across the country spoke about the seriousness of what they see as a global crisis – pollution – as well as their unique ability as people to lead the way to a healthier planet.

Speaking as a panelist on the topic of indigenous-led conservation, Senior Houma Chief Lora Ann Chaisson said members of her tribe were suffering from high rates of cancer, having been the first to respond to a major oil spill. She also said that due to climate change, her own property in Louisiana looked different than when she first bought it.

“We’re in the gulf, and so this salty water is eating up the land,” she said. “And where I live, I own 10 acres of land. Twenty-one years ago we hunted deer. Now I fish in my garden.

“Areas that were dry land where our ancestors were are now under water in many places,” said Casey Thornbrugh, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe who lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, who served on the panel. “We know this from our stories. Our stories tell of these changes.

Thornbrugh is an educator and environmental scientist who liaises between Tribal Climate Science and the United Tribes of the South and East and Climate Adaptation Science Centers of the Northeast and Southeast of the Ministry of the Interior.

Daniel Cordalis joined the panel as a water rights lawyer and former Home Office employee.

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 reserve land to forestry interests and allowed private companies to dam the Klamath River. For the Yurok, this meant a damaged ecosystem and made subsistence fishing impossible.

“These dams are starting to be decommissioned and actually being removed,” Cordalis said. “This will be the largest river restoration project in history.”

A person holds a young child who is holding a feather
An adult and a young child attend the Nottoway powwow in September. (Photo: Angie Miles/VPM News)

There seems to be a shift happening across the country. Indigenous peoples who were cheated or driven from tribal lands during European colonization are now getting back some of what was theirs. The Rappahannocks of Virginia, for example, announced in April that the tribe had reclaimed 465 acres at Fones Cliffs, a culturally and spiritually significant ancestral homeland for the tribe. Soon they plan to invite the public to visit the land and learn more about the environment and native customs.

Research shows that lands managed by Indigenous peoples are as healthy as lands managed by any other entity. Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson said the reacquisition of the land marked a new beginning for the tribe and fulfilled a dream held by her father and ancestors.

“You know, my father used to take me hunting, [or that’s what] he was calling her, and I was just a young kid, probably 9 or 10 years old. And he said, ‘Well, we’re going to hunt.’ And we’d go out into the woods, and he’d take the gun. I never used it,” Richardson said. “And we would sit and just watch the spectacle that nature gave us. And he taught me to observe animals, because he said that animals hold the wisdom of the ages. And we could learn from them.

It is federal recognition, federal funds, and partnerships with a host of conservation organizations and private interests that have made the restoration of the cliffs possible. The tribe is again the guardian of hundreds of species of plants and animals. Rather than owning the land, the Aboriginal way is less about ownership and more about mutual belonging.

“In the Western world, we are taught that everything is about human beings. I mean me, me. And we relegate animals, plants and water, and the sun, the elements, 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 because we learned differently. And so, my goal is to teach the truth about who we are, and how we interact and are connected to all of these things, for the good of all humanity and for the survival of the planet.

In November, about 1,000 additional acres at Fones Cliffs are expected to be sold at a bankruptcy auction. The developers had made plans for a resort on the property. The Rappahannocks and their conservation-minded partners plan to attend the sale.

Richardson said she hopes to add this land to their protected holdings for conservation purposes. For her, this opportunity is in line with the desires of her ancestors.

“It’s very emotional for me…because it was a prophecy from my grandmother that in this hour, in this very hour that we live, the natives will be called upon to save the planet,” Richardson said, “I see these tribes stepping up, because it is their spiritual duty.

Richardson said land reclamation creates the chance to teach others the wisdom of one’s ancestors.

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