The tribe is one of six in Virginia granted federal recognition by Congress in 2018, a designation that made them eligible for funding through the Cares Act.
The Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi, Monacan and Nansemond tribes received about $19 million to address immediate needs, such as PPE, broadband Internet and unemployment assistance for about 5,000 tribal citizens.
And the tribes are poised to receive as much as three times that amount under the American Rescue Plan, giving them the chance to begin to reverse long-standing disparities in health care, education and housing that separated families and limited economic opportunities.
Although the tribes are barred from pursuing gaming under legislation passed by Congress, they could develop other businesses.
“I hope it’s something that gives us the ability to define our future,” said Reggie Tupponce, tribal administrator for the Upper Mattaponi. “In our past we were self-sufficient communities, and we’d like to get back to where we have our larger community and we’re able to provide services and jobs for our people.”
Stephen Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy, said his tribe is exploring ideas such as ecotourism and trendy glamping in yurts, but also a vocational technical school that would teach skills in high demand everywhere, including Virginia.
“I want to keep our young kids here so they can keep the tribe going,” he said. “I want them to have the same fire in their belly that we have.”
Leaders of the six tribes worked on a volunteer basis for decades to convince the United States to officially recognize their tribes.
They finally won the fight when Congress passed the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, which President Donald Trump signed in early 2018.
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), whose district includes many tribe members, said without federal recognition, the tribes would have missed out on money that has helped them ride out the pandemic.
“This was an issue of respect. Federal recognition acknowledges and protects the historical and cultural identities of these tribes,” he said in a statement.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) noted there’s more work to do before the tribes are accepted as sovereign nations.
“Recognition is the beginning. Understanding takes a lot longer,” he said in an interview.
A Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian exhibit on the Virginia tribes could leave visitors with the impression that they were eradicated, he said.
“They’ve never gone anywhere,” Kaine said. “These are living and thriving communities that have suffered but have held it together.”
Unlike western tribes that have reservations, most Virginia tribal members are concentrated among rural and suburban counties northeast of Richmond, in the Hampton Roads region along the Chesapeake Bay and in the Shenandoah Valley, while others live across the country.
They had just begun to get a handle on how to set up sovereign governments after federal recognition when the coronavirus pandemic created challenges.
Like their nonnative neighbors, some members contracted the coronavirus and had to be hospitalized. Some didn’t make it.
The tribes each declared a state of emergency in mid-March, making them eligible for millions of dollars in federal funding they had to use quickly.
Some of the money went to opening health centers, such as the one the Upper Mattaponi renovated. But the tribes also used it for drive-through PPE distribution, food banks, rent and mortgage payment assistance, potable water systems for people with faulty sewer systems, and job counseling.
Unemployment among Native Americans in the United States reached 26 percent in the early months of the pandemic and remains at nearly 11 percent, according to Treasury Department recovery funds guidance. The unemployment rate for the country peaked at nearly 15 percent in April 2020, federal data shows.
“It took a global pandemic for the tribes to have access to the services they have long needed to serve their communities,” said Marion F. Werkheiser, a Richmond-based attorney who represents the six tribes. “But they are building critical services that will outlast covid.”
The Upper Mattaponi health center has five exam rooms and a small lab and pharmacy.
The center was closed for about three years, meaning both tribal members and members of the community often had to travel 30 miles for care. Seniors who do not drive found the journey especially difficult.
“It’s something we knew we could [do to] serve our own people well and we could also help the overall community,” Tupponce said.
He walked past unopened boxes and blank walls to greet workers, almost all of whom he was related to.
“We’re a tribe and we’re a government, but we’re a family, too,” he said.
Tupponce, 58, is one of six employees, including finance, environmental and housing specialists, who work in a modular building paid for with federal funds that is the tribal headquarters in King William County.
“We’re busting at the seams already,” he said of the nonprofit-turned-start-up government.
Federal recognition and the funding that comes with it have helped reestablish the tribes’ presence, but members say it also begins to reverse the effects of systematic discrimination once enshrined in Virginia law.
Tupponce was born in the Philadelphia, where his grandparents moved in the early 1940s for work and school, but he returned “home” in the summers to help on the family farm and maintain the bond with his culture. His daughter practices traditional dance, and he and his son are drummers. A bumper sticker on his car reads, “I’m Indian and I vote.”
“You have to make a conscious decision to practice your culture — and it’s not just the kids, it’s the adults, too,” he said.
Known as “first contact tribes,” the Powhatan Nation tribes were the first to meet European settlers who landed in Jamestown in 1607, and are descendants of Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan who, as the legend goes, saved the life of Capt. John Smith.
They signed a peace treaty with the English government in 1677, but the United States did not honor the agreement after independence.
“With all the fighting and genocide and all this, we survived. Not only survived but kept the tribe together,” Chief W. Frank Adams of the Upper Mattaponi said on a recent afternoon between Zoom calls for tribal business. “We are very resilient people.”
Their existence has been threatened throughout Virginia history. Walter Plecker, the eugenicist behind the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which said birth certificates could be labeled only “white” or “colored,” effectively erased Indians from the public record.
Segregation further eroded their prospects, depriving generations of a decent education because Indian schools often stopped before high school. Families moved north to send their children to public schools, sometimes weakening tribal bonds.
G. Anne Richardson, 64, fourth-generation chief of the Rappahannock Tribe, attended Sharon Indian School, one of the last to operate in Virginia. The one-room building built in 1919 was replaced with a modern brick structure where a historic marker stands today.
Richardson said she hopes to use the federal dollars to create housing and jobs to lure citizens back to their tribal land.
A new 5,800-square-foot emergency operations center could be the beginning of the tribe’s future, she said one day last week in rural Indian Neck, in King and Queen County, where the funding also connected the tribe’s headquarters to broadband Internet.
Next door, a center built in the late 1990s serves as a repository for artifacts and exhibits, such as photographs of the tribe’s last known medicine man and Richardson’s parents sharing their culture with tourists at Jamestown.
“We are living their dreams,” she said.