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Where every person has a story.

HHS Media

Indigenous Virginians spread awareness ‘We’re still here’, fight for Federal recognition after ‘paper genocide’

“A lot of people don’t even know we exist, have existed as tribes for this long. I think part of that is a failing of the educational system, in Commonwealth, Virginia. It’s something that until fairly recently, hasn’t been taught in school,” Brad Hatch, a council member of the  Patawomeck tribe, said. 

The Patawomeck tribe is located in Strafford County, Virginia besides the Potomac River. The tribe has existed approximately since 1300 After Death (AD) on the land. 

“A lot of people don’t even know we exist, have existed as tribes for this long. I think part of that is a failing of the educational system, in Commonwealth, Virginia. It’s something that until fairly recently, hasn’t been taught in school,” Hatch said.

The English settled in 1607 when the tribe was part of the Powhatan tribe. During this time, the tribe faced many threats against their existence on the land, eventually massacred and abused by the British. Throughout the years, the U.S government took measures against the tribes such as the 1924 Racial Integrity Laws, erased their existence from public records in what is known as a ‘paper genocide.’

The tribe continued to fight for its existence and the preservation of its history and culture.

Each tribe currently has a form of government. In the Patawomeck tribe there is a 15 person council. Hatch is one of the only eel pot making instructors. 

An eel pot is a special trap that was made with the purpose of catching eel, a type of fish. His tribe is one of the last tribes to still pursue this tradition.

“They’re made from split white oak they’re used to catch eels. They have ancient antecedents that go way back for traps, but these are kind of a combination of ancient traditions and also newer technology and techniques that were brought over by Europeans,” Hatch said.

While eel pots are not used as often as they were, the tribes still put an emphasis on teaching and creating the tradition.

“Eel pots, for example, that was something that has been carried along within the tribe, from generation to generation, that’s something that I learned from an elder and he learned it from another elder and back,” Hatch said. 

The native craft holds deep ties to the area where it was created, as it was a way for them to be resourceful on the land.

“What is more important is the traditions that are carried on through the object. And by that, I mean the tradition of fishing, sort of that long term knowledge of a place, in our case, Potomac Creek where our ancestors had fished for hundreds of years and 1000s of years, having that connection to the waterways, as viewed through an object related to fishing is something that it’s important that has been carried on for generations. In some cases you almost don’t need to look back at historical records to find that, that’s something we’ve been able to hold on to,” Hatch said. 

The Patawomeck tribe is also working on language revitalization to strengthen their culture and heritage. 

“Perhaps most tangible about the heritage and ways that we’ve been trying to preserve it, is our language revitalization program. We have been working on revitalizing the Powhatan-Algonquian language since 2006 or 2007,” Hatch said.

The tribe has offered classes to their tribal citizens and the public that ranged from children’s conversational levels to advanced and intermediate.

The elimination of their language as well as many other tribal languages is due to the rapid colonization of their land as well as the intentional massacre of the tribe by the English. 

In 1666, 59 years after the British had settled in Jamestown, where they were receiving corn and food from the natives, the colonists launched a wide-scale attack against the Patawomeck and other tribes in the region, killing most of the men and separating the women and children. 

Through the killing, the tribe chiefs instructed their children to continue to hold on to their heritage, despite what had happened. This proved to be a challenge as records wiped out most of their history and revitalization of traditions became a tedious task. 

“After around 1700, the English records really started to ignore native presence in Virginia, and particularly the eastern part of Virginia. An exception to that would obviously be the groups that have reservation land, but for those of us who are citizen Indians it’s a little more difficult because at that point you have to start to trace communities within the historical record. It takes a real sleuth to do it. It also takes a more nuanced understanding of what is being said and what is being ignored in historical records, and archaeology helps quite a bit. The material aspects of communities and people’s lives are just as important as and perhaps more important than the written aspects of their lives,” Hatch said.

By working together with other tribes, the Patawomeck are able to put historical pieces together to establish the language.

“Currently, we are working with the other Algonquin speakers in Virginia in a larger language consortium to continue to revitalize the language and come up with sort of a more standardized language so that we’re all mutually intelligible to one another and it’s difficult, as with any language that hasn’t been spoken for hundreds of years to reconstruct it. We had to draw from different sources of evidence to be able to do that,” Hatch said.

Rebuilding the language proved to be harder with a lack of records for the language.

“It’s been reconstructed through early English records. For example, our tribal name, Patawomeck its spelled more than a half dozen ways in the early English records and that’s because people are writing down what they hear. They’re not necessarily writing down correct spelling,” Hatch said.

The tribe continues to use different methods to establish some basics of the language.

“We’ve had to draw on like other Algonquin languages that are still being spoken. Drawing on living languages, as well as combining that with the historical documentation,” Hatch said.

The tribe also practices the quilting craft as a way of building bonds within the tribe.

“We have a group of quilters within the tribe. I think a lot of people don’t think of quilting as an indigenous practice, necessarily. Sure enough, we’re using metal needles and thread, cut thread, things like that, so it’s very heavily influenced by Western European culture. But quilting has been important within our community and within other indigenous communities, because it allows groups of people to get together and share stories, share ideas and heritage and meet with one another,” Hatch said.

Continuing this tradition plays a vital role in the tribe’s plans for the future.
“We continue that tradition today, within our tribal center, we have a room that is set aside for the quilters where they go and make quilts and, meet with one another and have a good time,” Hatch said.

The U.S. recognizes seven tribes in Virginia, the Patawomeck tribe is not one of them. Federal recognition proves to be a benefit in many areas, specifically in the sovereignty of the tribe and federal benefits that are provided.

“Federal recognition is important for several different reasons. It ensures that the treaties that were made with indigenous communities are honored. Many treaties were broken and ignored over the course of hundreds of years of colonization. That government to government relationship that you gained through federal recognition helps to ensure that you have that self determination,” Hatch said. “It also allows communities like ours who have traditionally been underserved, to have opportunities that they have not had in the past in terms of things like health care and housing, education.”

Federal recognition can come in many forms usually through treaties or congressional acts and, at times, presidential executive orders and federal court decisions.

“It’s kind of ironic that the indigenous people in America are really the only group of people that have to prove who they are. We have struggled for a long time to maintain our identity,” Hatch said.

The road to recognition for the tribe has been that of many years and effort, as they continue to pursue federal recognition.

Out of the seven federally recognized tribes, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe –Eastern was recognized federally in 2018. The Chickahominy-Eastern tribe has lived on the land for more than 1000 years. The treaty of 1646 displaced the tribe as well as many others. The paper record of the tribe has undergone destruction during the 20th century erasing the existence of many of the tribal members.

Up until the 1960 higher education was not allowed for Native tribes in Virginia, forcing the members to build their own schools and pay their own teachers. Currently, the tribe is working to restore their history as well as look toward the future.

“Chikahomeny means coarse pound, corn people, so corn was a big staple, not just with us but with other native tribes. We were not under the rule of Powhatan and his confederacy, we were allies. We were pretty much considered his muscle when we went into war and battle because the tribe was just so large,” Tanya Stewart the Cultural director of the tribe said.

Stewart has been doing presentations for students for over 25 years now. She goes to classrooms with her son, Kennan Stewart who is the Cultural Resources Assistant for the tribe.

“I would go and do different things, talk about the native aspect of being Chikahomeny,” Stewart said. “We do presentations for everyone, it’s mostly school age, we go into different businesses and do presentations for adults and different communities as well, but it’s a different presentation that I do with the children than what I do with the adults, with the children I try to keep all the information as a basic as pre-colonial contact, I try to go anywhere from 1500 and back. My information is basically general,” Stewart said.

Doing presentations for the Charles City County children, where the tribe is, got a different reaction then when Stewart did the teaching farther away from the tribe.

“It was kind of easy talking to those kids, just because they knew other native kids, they knew other native families. It wasn’t that hard to relate, knowing us as us still being here as not being eliminated or looking so much as the Native Americans out West because when you hear Native Americans the first thought you go to is what the Natives look [like] out West,” Stewart said.

A lot of children grow up seeing a specific lens of Natives in Virginia and the East Coast, through the media. Stewart tries to debunk the generalized, mostly false representation they see on TV.

“When we get to the end we try to leave it open for different questions, sometimes they have questions sometimes they don’t. But we always try to debunk some of the things that they see on TV, like the Pocahontas movie, Disney that’s not accurate and they’re like ‘what no really,’ Stewart said.

She emphasized the importance of doing independent research about the Native culture.

“You need to read for yourself. You can’t always go by what someone else says and try to reinforce that portion of it. Kids are really receptive to it,” Stewart said.

Stewart has also been teaching and working on native crafts as a way to continue the traditions of the tribe.

“Beadwork has always been my passion, it’s been my money maker, I literally have beatwork all over the world, you’re making earrings and bracelets and necklaces, I do belts, I do things on the loom, I do beadwork by hand, different designs and different stitches, beading is definitely my favorite and my passion. My mother was a beader, I kind of grew up all in it,” Stewart said.

Being able to spread awareness about the tribe’s existence was vital for Stewart over these educational presentations.

“We all look different…we all have different hairstyles, hair textures, different shades of skin tone. We’re all natives. So many history books and books in general say that we no longer exist, here in Virginia. Everyone thinks that we were eliminated, and the same thing with a lot of natives on the East coast, people think we no longer exist,” Stewart said.

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