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Joseph Martin
Special to Indian Country Today

CHARLES CITY, Virginia — Four years after the Chickahominy Tribe received federal recognition, some of its traditional lands will be going back under tribal control.

The tribe, based near Richmond, Virginia, purchased the land known as Mamanahunt along the Chickahominy River using $3.5 million in funds from outgoing Gov. Ralph Northam’s budget.

“It’s once-in-a-lifetime,” Chickahominy Chief Stephen Adkins said. “Since the mid-17th century, we haven’t had a footprint on the Chickahominy River.”

Having the land under Chickahominy control provides opportunities for cultural preservation and interpretation, and gives the tribe a place to re-inter remains taken during archaeological digs.

Adkins said the tribe had been looking for land along the Chickahominy River when the site came up for sale. He and First Assistant Chief Wayne Adkins worked out the deal with the governor’s office.

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The 944-acre tract is largely wooded with cypress swamps, and has been used for farming and timber harvesting. It also is home to wildlife. The transaction was finalized Dec. 30, shortly before Northam left office.

“As we strive to tell a fuller and more inclusive story of Virginia, it is important to preserve and protect physical places and spaces that represent the history of all Virginians,” Northam said in a statement.

“Returning this historically significant parcel of land to the Chickahominy is one way to recognize tribal sovereignty, honor their rich history and ensure that the tribal nation has a place where they can continue their sacred traditions and share their stories,” he said.

Northam’s outgoing Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson and outgoing Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Ann Jennings, in the same statement, spoke of building a more equitable commonwealth and protecting natural resources.

“The Chickahominy, along with Virginia’s other Indigenous peoples, were the original stewards of the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” Jennings said. “Helping to reconnect the tribe with these lands and waters provides additional benefits such as supporting resilient ecosystems and improving water quality in the bay.”

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Assistant Chief Wayne Adkins said the reacquisition is a way to tell the tribe’s story from its own perspective. He said the tribe hasn’t had control of the land since the late 1600s.

“That’s where we came from. That’s where we were when the settlers came,” he said. “It was meant to be. It was divine intervention that it came up the way it did. It was one of the places where John Smith mapped. It’s historically important to us.”

Chief Stephen Adkins said the land had been used for farming, hunting and fishing, and offers potential uses for ecotourism and river tours that interpret the tribal culture.

“If you look at it, it’s just a beautiful site,” he said. “It’s just a sense of peace and serenity when I step on that property … We want to give people a better sense of who we are because it’s not taught in the schools. I think it’d be much more effective coming from Native people.”

Getting the land back also provides the tribe with an option for repatriating remains. The College of William and Mary in nearby Williamsburg, Virginia, has been working with the tribe on repatriation for about 20 years, before the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, sent universities scrambling.

One of the hurdles has been that the tribe didn’t have a proper place to inter the remains, Stephen Adkins said. He hopes to finalize repatriation this year.

Martin Gallivan, a professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at William and Mary, called the reacquisition an exciting and restorative development.

“William and Mary’s colonial Indian School educated Native students from Virginia’s tribes during the 18th century,” Gallivan said. “More recently, the Chickahominy Tribe joined an intertribal Native advisory board that partnered with William and Mary to undertake archaeological research at Werowocomoco, the Powhatan center place.”

He and his colleagues have worked closely with the tribe to finish a survey of archaeological sites along the Chickahominy River. One of the sites identified by the survey was located within the land the tribe has reacquired.

“William and Mary is also engaged with the tribe to conclude a repatriation project,” he said. “We’ve facilitated the repatriation consultation process with Virginia tribes for the past two years and validated the NAGPRA inventory, which will conclude soon.”

Judy Ledbetter, a longtime volunteer historian at the Charles City County Richard M. Bowman Center for Local History, said the land is at the heart of the tribe’s territory.

“It’s just an amazing development. It will be long-term, not only wonderful for the tribe, but the county as well,” she said. “It’s a good day for Charles City and for the tribe and for the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Chief Adkins said in a statement released by the governor’s office that the land creates a new way forward for the tribe.

“This is a repatriation of the historically significant land and rich culture of our people, and pays respect to a history that for too long has been held hostage,” he said. “This gives us a presence back on the river that we came from. We’re coming back. It opens a new era for the tribe to share our history.”

Correction: The Chickahominy Tribe purchased 944 acres of ancestral lands in Virginia. The total acreage provided by state officials to Indian Country Today, which was previously cited in the story, was incorrect.

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