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Nottoway Indian tribe of Virginia asserts unfair treatment in bid for state recognition

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. – In January 2006, the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia began the process to obtain state recognition from the Commonwealth of Virginia. The first step in the process, though not legally necessary, is to obtain a formal recommendation through the Virginia Council on Indians. More than 30 months since the tribe first sought the endorsement from the VCI committee, no formal recommendation has been made.

According to the Tribal Recognition Criteria ratified by the VCI May 16, 2006 in accordance with the Code of Virginia, the recognition committee “will normally view the petition and make a recommendation to the VCI within 360 days from the time the committee convenes.”

The current recognition committee, which has changed numerous times since the Nottoway first began its quest for recognition, has not been able to agree on its recommendation to the VCI. The current committee consists of Mitchell Bush, Onondaga-Mohawk; tribal representative Arlene Milner, Upper Mattaponi; Assistant Chief Earl Bass, Nansemond; Chief Anne Richardson, Rappahannock and Helen Rountree, Virginia Indian historian.

Tribal members are claiming support from some committee members, but bias by others that will not “allow the recognition process to work.”

In a rough draft report, Dr. Rountree has voted against five of the six criteria necessary for a statement of recommendation that is not even legally necessary to obtain state recognition. Approval and disapproval of the six criteria varies by other members of the committee. Bush has voted in favor of all six.

In a letter to former Pamunkey and VCI Chair Chief William Miles, Nottoway of Virginia tribal attorney Allard Allston has asked Rountree to resign from the committee.

In addition to the votes against a Nottoway recommendation, Rountree’s career as a historian to American Indian issues does not bode well with members to the tribe.

In an unpublished manuscript titled “The Termination and dispersal of the Nottoway Indians of Virginia,” Rountree wrote:

“There was indeed a continuing decline of the Indian population in Virginia in the Eighteenth Century, not only because of disease and alcohol, but more often because of spin-off due to adoptions of Indian orphans by whites, skilled adults remaining among whites to practice their trades, and (perhaps that early) some disapproved marriages with free negroes to escape the inbreeding. The core of the Indian community that was left was conservative or unambitious or in the case of the Nottoway, both.

The Nottoway continued to claim a declining population and use it to get permission to sell land, but as we shall see, their population actually leveled off in succeeding years at around thirty core individuals. Considering their love of alcohol, attested by several witnesses over the years, the Nottoway probably played the role of the vanishing Indian in order to get the General Assembly’s cooperation and then use the sale money to buy liquor.”

Rountree published an article bearing the same name in the Virginia Magazine of History and Biography in 1987.

Additionally, in a Southampton County Historical Society article, “The Nottoway Indians,” Rountree wrote that the Nottoway sold land for “clothes, guns, ammunition and liquor” and claimed the Nottaway’s loss of identity by merging with African Americans.

When asked about the assertions of bias in her past writing and reasons for not supporting the Nottoway’s recommendation, Rountree said, “I scoured the county records and the state records back in the 70s – I scoured them twice. I also tried to find a modern enclave and I could not find one with modern people in the 70s.

“I went over these documents and some of the documents were very biased against the Nottoway. Anybody who has to deal with drunks is bound to be a little cynical. I tried to write it sympathetically, but the documentary evidence that was there really did indicate that they sold away most of the land. Most of them did not try to hold onto it, there was some exceptions and they dispersed and you cannot find their descendants in the county records because I went looking and that is what I wrote.

“As of ’87, anybody with Nottoway ancestry, if they wanted to get in touch with me, they knew exactly where to find me. The article says Old Dominion University. Nobody contacted me. I could not interview people that were not contacting me. I do not have ESP.”

“I find it extremely offensive to my Nottoway ancestors and me that someone with Ms. Rountree’s credentials has published documents characterizing our indigenous ancestors as aggressive, intimidating, litigious and drunks,” said Assistant Nottoway Chief Archie Elliott, a retired general district court judge. “Native American history would be better served if historians were to focus on the positive role our ancestors played in forming our country’s history and placing less emphasis on negative stereotyping.”

Bush, a retired branch chief of Tribal Enrollment Services for the BIA, wrote in the VCI rough draft report, “Rountree criticized my objection but she herself perhaps should not have participated in the Nottoway Tribe of Virginia’s petition evaluation, given her earlier association with the Nottoway group, and her flat statement that there exists no Nottoway group.”

“In my opinion, Dr. Rountree has shown bias from the onset of the evaluation of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia’s state recognition petition,” said Paige Archer, Meherrin, a former VCI Recognition Committee chair. “Dr. Rountree’s stance on this subject, in my opinion, has led to further misconceptions. I feel that her actions have served as an influential roadblock.”

Archer resigned from committee in 2008. Governor Tim Kaine re-appointed her, but she did not accept.

The final decision of the committee will be made in May.

“I’m not challenging someone’s right to have their own personal opinion. All we are asking for is for them to be fair,” Allston said.

The public has the opportunity to comment on tribe’s bid for state recognition to the VCI Recognition Committee – express all concerns to VCI@governor.virginia.gov.