The Nansemond Tribe is Still Here With Their Annual Indian Pow Wow in Virginia

Vincent Schilling Nansemond tribal member Jessie Bass looks out during a fancy shawl dance at the Nansemond Pow Wow.

Lisa J. Ellwood

The Nansemond Tribe is Still Here With Their Annual Indian Pow Wow in Virginia.

Learn about Nansemond Tribe of Virginia heritage and traditions at their 29th Annual Pow Wow! - List of additional pow wows below.

This weekend the Nansemond Indian Tribe of Virginia, renowned for their annual American Indian Festival in Chesapeake, Virginia in June and their Suffolk pow wow, are hosting their 29th Annual Nansemond Indian Pow Wow on August 19 and 20 at their 104-acre replica 17th century Nansemond village Mattanock Town. The Nansemond tribe pow wow takes place at 1001 Pembroke Lane across from Oakland Elementary School in Suffolk.

The Nansemond Indians have been recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia as a state-recognized “citizen tribe” since 1984. Historically they were part of the Algonquin empire ruled by Powhatan, father of Pocahontas and traditionally lived in several villages along the Nansemond River centered near Chuckatuck in present-day Suffolk.

They were the southernmost tribe of Powhatan’s chiefdom and were likely amongst the first to meet Captain John Smith upon his arrival in Virginia in 1607. “We had 300 bowmen when the English came to set up Jamestown, the first permanent English colony,” said R. Keith Smith, Nansemond-Tsalagi, in a video profile of the 24th Annual Nansemond Pow Wow in 2012.

“When the English first landed, they landed on the bank of the Atlantic where the Chesapeake [Bay] emptied into the Atlantic. I believe that some of our people were there when they landed; as some of the Powhatan Indians my tribe were some of the first people to greet the English.”

The Nansemond were also amongst the first Native Americans to have to endure the brutality of British settlers.

Nansemond Chief Emeritus Oliver “Fish Hawk” Perry told Virginia historians in 1989, “When the English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607, the Tidewater area of Virginia had been inhabited for thousands of years by Native Americans. There were many tribes with very specialized religions, life styles, customs and political structures. The tribes were not nomadic but were very settled with large areas of land cleared for agriculture. The Powhatan tribes were located along the waterways and had observed European ships entering the Chesapeake Bay to capture Indians for the slave trade since the mid-1500s. They had witnessed and experienced the deadly effects of cannons, muskets and hangings.”

“The Indians provided the early settlers with food and taught them how to plant corn, to hunt and fish. The need for land and food supplies increased as more ships and many people continued to arrive and the settlements expanded rapidly. The foreign invaders forced the Indians off their ancestral homeland, confiscated their cleared fields, destroyed their longhouses and canoes, stole their corn and desecrated their temples,” said Perry.

Nansemond history is clear that the Powhatan Confederacy was a formal government of tribal people. The colonial records of John Smith on their Mattanock Town website support this: “The forme of their Common wealth is a monarchicall governement, one as Emperour ruleth over many kings or governours.”

Colonist William Strachey recorded the title by which the common folk addressed Powhatan: “his owne people sometymes call him . . . Mamanatowick, which . . . signifyes great Kinge” He was the ruler, not the first among equals. Smith wrote that “when he listeth his will is a law and must bee obeyed: not only as a king but as halfe a God they esteeme him. His inferiour kings . . . they cal werowances,” which translates merely to “[military] commander.”

As English settlements in Virginia expanded, the tribe split into two factions. The christianized Nansemond intermarried with the English and adopted their customs. They remained along the Nansemond River as farmers but still identified themselves as Nansemond. The non-christianized Nansemond fought the English and were forced to relocate several times. The Virginia colony assigned them to a reservation. Many of these Nansemond went to live with their Iroquoian Nottoway neighbors instead.

The last-known Nansemond reservation of 300 acres on the Nottoway river was sold in 1792, by which time there were only three non-christianized Nansemond left. The last walked on in 1806. A number moved to Norfolk County in the early 18th century and the existing members of the tribe are thought to largely descend from this group.

In recent decades the Nansemond tribe wanted to establish a village that would replicate their historical homeland. The 200-member tribe had the specific objectives of preserving their tribal heritage, educating the public about that heritage, and creating economic opportunity for the Suffolk community through the development of an authentic Nansemond village in the 1600’s as a primary tourist destination for Virginia.

After many struggles and years of discussions with the city of Suffolk, sacred Nansemond land at Lone Star Lakes was finally deeded back to the tribe in August 2013, but with a requirement that the estimated $5 million Mattonack Town project be completed by Jan. 31, 2018.

Plans included a museum with gift shop, an authentic dispersed Indian village, nature trails, hiking trails, a tribal center (with dining hall, kitchen facilities and offices), reburial grounds for Nansemond remains, and pow wow event facilities to support 10,000 to 15,000 people. It is here that the Nansemond Indian Pow Wow is held every August.

Admitting that they have still far to go with fundraising for and completion of Mattonack Town, Nansemond tribal leaders told the Suffolk News Herald last month that they plan to discuss its progress and the looming completion deadline with city officials soon.

For more information visit the Nansemond Indian Tribe website or Nansemond Pow Wow Facebook page.

Nansemond Tribe Pow Wow 2012

Nansemond Tribe Pow Wow 2015 Round Dance

Women’s Traditional Nansemond Tribe Indian Pow Wow 2015