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Fourth Graders Follow Virginia’s Process for Tribe Certification, Get Lesson in Injustice

Last year, students in Rebecca Kelley’s fourth grade class at Dumbarton Elementary School (outside Richmond, Virginia) delivered a presentation seeking state recognition for the Gv-he American Indian tribe. The project was supervised by Kelley and school librarian Suzanna L. Panter.

The goal was for the students to demonstrate how their fictitious Gv-he tribe—gv-he is Cherokee for Wildcats, the school’s mascot—had maintained its Indian identity throughout history, proved their direct descent and met the Virginia state requirements of social distinction.

According to Panter, the project started by attempting to follow the criteria for state recognition as mandated by the commonwealth of Virginia. “Following these guidelines, the students began to make their own documents and other related materials. Then we got to see the actual items and documents when Chief Lynette Allston met with the students.” Students made their case to a mock Virginia Council on Indians (VCI) in front of approximately 21 fellow students, a few parents and school officials, and Chief Allston of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, which was awarded Virginia state recognition in February 2010.

The students reviewed hundreds of pages and documents of the Nottoway Indian tribe of Virginia’s submission for state recognition, which had been presented to the VCI. “We hoped to show different perspectives of history,” says Panter. “The students learned about American Indians of the past for state requirements. We also integrated fluency skills throughout the project and taught students language-art skills, how to use search engines, access and evaluate resources. It was a bonus [that] Lynette became involved. We blew the state standards of learning out of the water.”

In order to comply with the state education social studies standards while making a connection to Virginia’s contemporary Native people for their project, Panter and Kelley attended the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia’s pow wow in September 2011 to meet with tribal officials. “We saw Chief Allston, but we were too scared to talk with her,” Panter says. “To me she was like a queen, and I didn’t even know how to address her.”

They left without speaking to Allston, but got her contact information from Allston’s husband. When they finally spoke with her and explained their project, Allston agreed to serve as an advisor and to meet with the students. “Lynette and her husband visited our school and shared with us the actual documents and the hard work required by them to gain state recognition,” says Kelley. “Their openness to us to talk and share opened so many doors.”

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Kelley says that Allston’s willingness to reach out and support her students was the key ingredient. “When Chief Allston came to our school and watched the students present the mock petition for recognition to the Virginia Council of Indians, the tears in her eyes told me that our project was a success. Her intelligence combined with her bulldog persistence makes her a force to be reckoned with, yet she maintains her poise and grace through challenging situations. She is a role model for all women.”

Throughout the research process, which included a review of the documents the tribe had submitted to the VCI during its bid for state recognition and online research, Panter and Kelley discovered that the process for Virginia tribes to obtain state recognition is arduous. “When we were researching, Becky and I stumbled on to the transcripts of the VCI reports. It read like a novel. When we were reading what was said, it didn’t make sense to us. How could a tribe have all of these things and still not make the criteria? How could they say no? I could really see the injustice in black and white,” says Panter.

During the presentation, which was similar to an actual hearing in a courtroom, Dumbarton students showed the mock VCI several student-created documents, tribal history time lines, family genealogies and maps of the Gv-he ancestral lands. The mock VCI rigorously questioned the accuracy of birth and census records of tribal members. In response, members of the Gv-he tribe described the racial discrimination toward Virginia tribes by the former registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, Walter Ashby Plecker, a notorious white supremacist who believed there were only two races, white and black.

After the presentation, the mock VCI made a very real—and important—ruling: the Gv-he tribe got a thumbs-up for state recognition. When the fourth graders heard the ruling, they let out a loud cheer.

“We were all in tears,” Allston says. “The teachers and the school librarian were very encouraging to the students, who did so much research outside the scope of what you would expect of fourth graders. They all have a good reason to be proud.”

In March 2012, Dumbarton Elementary School was given two Henrico 21 awards, a school district–level award for exceptional lesson plans that incorporate 21st century skills, and the school’s library was named School Library of the Year by the Virginia Association of School Librarians. This was the first time an elementary school won the award.