A Conversation with Two Chiefs
In this excerpt from the radio program With Good Reason, Chiefs Stephen Adkins (Chickahominy) and Kenneth Adams (Upper Mattaponi) discuss historical and present-day issues facing Virginia’s Indians. The program first aired during the week of January 29, 2005. With Good Reason is produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and hosted by Sarah McConnell.
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Sarah McConnell: Big plans are in the works to mark the 400th anniversary of Jamestown, America’s first permanent English colony. The settlers survived the brutal winter of 1607 only with the help of the Virginia Indians who had lived there for centuries. The descendants of those Indians have strong opinions about the upcoming Jamestown Commemoration. I’m Sarah McConnell and today on With Good Reason, a conversation with two chiefs.
At the time of the Jamestown colony the great Indian chief Powhatan had already forged a kingdom on the coastal plain of Virginia that numbered about 30 tribes and 15,000 people. By 1669 the 15,000 numbered only 1,800, and by 1722 many of the tribes in the empire were reported to be extinct. My guests today are Virginia Indian chiefs: Steve Adkins is chief of Virginia’s Chickahominy Indians and Ken Adams is chief of the Upper Mattaponi.
Do you ever feel like Jamestown is really yours, too, or do you feel hostile toward the whole depiction and representation that is in that very ancient site for us in America?
Kenneth Adams: I have very, very mixed feelings about Jamestown. I’m really glad that America is the way it is today and it’s opened its heart and it’s an inviting country to all people and has built on democracy, but I’m also very sad that in order to come to this point that ninety percent of the Indians were decimated, ninety percent of the Indians were annihilated to get to this point where we have this democracy. It hurts me to know that those people, that so many of them died to get to where we are today, and one of the problems with America today, and one of the problems with Virginia and Jamestown, is they have never admitted to the world that the goal of many of those people that came to this land and settled here was the annihilation of the Indian people. They have never admitted that ninety percent of the Indian people were killed, and in all walks of life no matter where you go, when ninety percent of an entire race of people is destroyed, that’s considered genocide and ethnic cleansing, and we criticize nations today for doing that and America did the same thing.
McConnell: Don’t historians say that a lot of the Indians were killed through the introduction of new diseases, in Virginia?
Adams: Yes, they say that but there were writings from Virginia that were sent back to England that said, "We have killed more in the last year than in all the previous years combined," and there were many leaders of the original colony whose goal was to annihilate the Indians.
Stephen Adkins: I was at the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Inaugural Event, and a person was kind of looking at me from afar and she came over and she said, "You’re Indian, aren’t you?," I said yes, she said, "Well, where are you from?," I said Virginia and she said, "No, there are no Indians in Virginia.”
McConnell: How large was the population of Virginia Indians when the settlers arrived?
Adkins: I’ve heard anywhere from fifteen to thirty thousand.
Adams: At the turn of the century we were down to about twelve to fourteen hundred.
McConnell: How many now?
Adams: 3,500 to 5,000, anywhere in that neighborhood.
Adkins: And then we had these zealots in Virginia like Walter Plecker that took it upon himself to start this eugenics movement, or at least support it, and who systematically went through and said, "There are no Indians in Virginia," to the point that if a midwife or doctor delivered an Indian baby in the forties, thirties and forties, and gave that Indian baby a native name, the midwife or the doctor was subject to a year in prison. And the genesis of all this started in 1607. So I’ve got some very mixed feelings about Jamestown 2007. Initially, it was going to be called 2007 Celebration, Jamestown Celebration, and we, being the native voice in Virginia said, "How can we call this a celebration, when in fact we’re looking at the beginning of the downfall of our people?," and when I look at the sheer numbers that just died or were killed, I go crazy, you know, I want to do something. You know I try, I’ve got five kids, but, you know, how many can you have?
McConnell: (laughter) Ken, what were the sort of climactic events in the lives of the Virginia Indians?
Adams: In 1607 when the British came to these shores it began the attempted annihilation of Indians in Virginia. In 1622 there was an attempt by Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough, to drive the colonists out of Virginia. In 1646 there were treaties signed between the Indians and the British dictating some terms as to where the Indians could and could not live. They were being pushed further and further north and west. In the 1670s some Indians from out of the colony came into the area, some Iroquois and Seneca, I believe, and they caused the colonists some grief, so Nathaniel Bacon killed off more of the Indians. In 1677, the final treaty with the Indians was signed; parts of that treaty are still in existence today. From the mid- to early 1700s to the mid-1800s the Indians sort of disappeared from all the records, the reason I say the mid-1800s is we started showing up on census records. In the 1900s, early 1900s, we started building our own schools. And we used those schools up until the 1960s.
McConnell: Why do you think the Indians didn’t show up in Virginia in the census between 1790 and when did you say, the mid-1800s?
Adams: There was nothing on the census to indicate Indians, there were only two designations on the census; there was black and white, that began around 1705 when the laws started changing to reflect the culture of Virginia because they had the slaves, of course, and they did not want the slave population to have any power, so they started calling all people that were non-white people of color.
McConnell: When do the history books tell us Virginians last lived relatively happily with Virginia Indians?
Adams: I don’t think they ever tell us that, there might have been a period when Powhatan’s daughter Pocahontas was married to John Rolfe that there was a sort of a tense peace, but I don’t think they ever really fully got along. Because if you think of a people coming into your land and taking over all that you have, you can’t be happy. The Indians could not possibly have been happy with that occurring around them, their land being taken and their way of life being destroyed, it’s impossible to be happy under those situations.
Adkins: Well, the emerging generation of which Ken Adams and I were a part of, we decided it was time to stop this stuff and let the world know who we are, so we went after state recognition, I mean at a fever pitch, and the process ended in 1983 when the Virginia Commission on Indians was formed. State recognition was granted. Today we have eight official state-recognized tribes in Virginia.
McConnell: So, it was in your father’s lifetime, though, that overt pressure was put on the Indian people of Virginia to sort of disappear themselves?
Adkins: That’s right. Walter Plecker, who was the chief or the head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics from the 1920s through the forties or up until the forties, actually systematically went through and altered birth records of Virginia Indians. They literally tried to erase us out of existence.
McConnell: Why were they doing that?
Adkins: Walter Plecker said there were two races in Virginia: white and colored. Walter Plecker was a confidant of Adolf Hitler, Walter Plecker believed in the Aryan nation, he believed in white supremacy, and he thought there should be no intermingling of races. With some of Virginia’s finest, some of the FFV [First Families of Virginia], you see, have said, "Well, we’re related to Pocahontas, so how can you say that there are no Indians in Virginia?" So he recanted, he backed up some. He actually wrote a letter to the heads of the hospitals and universities and talked about those "mongrels," that would be me, he said, you know, the worst thing we could do is let them write "Indian" on their birth certificates, these mongrels are starting to marry white people, these mongrels are going out and getting jobs in society, you know, what have we done? And let me tell you, in 1997, then-Governor George Allen signs state legislation that required the state to bury the expense of any Indian in Virginia whose birth records had been altered, so we’re not talking seventeeth century, eighteenth century, nineteenth century, we’re talking twentieth century when we as a nation, as a people had to go to state government to get our birth records corrected. But that’s what we faced. My wife and I will be in a restaurant having dinner and somebody will invariably say, "You’re Indian, aren’t you?" and I’m okay with that. But the next question is "Are you full blood?" and my favorite rejoinder is, "Well, I gave a pint of blood at the American Red Cross a couple weeks ago, so I may be a pint low." But typically you don’t walk up to an African American or Caucasian and say, "Are you a full blood white?" "Are you full blood African American?"
McConnell: You know what I think, though, by growing your hair long you help people along.
Adams: I think that’s intentional, so you won’t get asked those questions.
Adkins: But in our culture, young Indians were brought up to believe that there was strength, you know, having long hair was a sign of strength, a sign of manliness. The white folks understood that early on because when the Indians were forced into government schools the first thing they had to do was cut their hair. I didn’t want to give up my Indian-ness to go to a white school, nor did I want to give up my Indian-ness to go to a colored school. Now, we caught the attention of the state in the late forties and they paid some funding toward our teachers, and then our schools closed because we didn’t want our schools integrated. We said, "Nope, we don’t…," so when they started bringing others in school, white or black, we said, "We don’t want that." So we ended up funding our own school, hiring our own teachers, and then we eventually came back into the state school system, but even then with our report cards there were two provisions - white and colored - and they would scratch through and write "Indian" on our report cards. I mean, again, we were the third ranks in what was predominately a two-race society.
Adams: Education was never available for a high school graduate; I don’t recall a single Indian in the state of Virginia that graduated from a public school until the 1960s.
McConnell: Would you agree with me that it has some cachet now to be a Virginia Indian?
Adams: I would say now we have much more political strength than we’ve ever had in our lifetime; however, we had to actually force that change.
McConnell: What forced it?
Adams: One thing, we achieved this state recognition, which sort of in itself is sort of a silly thing if you think about it, being recognized by the state for who you are, because no other culture in this land has to do that to get this recognition that they should have. That should come with just being here.
Adkins: I think the big reason that we want federal recognition is just to acknowledge who we are. It’s more to me of a pride thing.
Adams: It is a pride issue. In the system of Indians in America, to be a non-federally recognized tribe, you are considered a second-class Indian.
McConnell: Federal recognition would put money in your pockets, is that right? Then you could have gambling.
Adams: No we couldn’t. (laughter)
Adkins: Some tribes think that, and if you look at the percentage of Indian tribes that engage in gambling, it’s a very small percentage. But again, that’s what catches the headlines. Now, what we’ve said is as long as the state doesn’t support gaming, then we won’t engage in it. Frank Wolf is a northern Virginia congressman; now what Frank Wolf is saying is, "We don’t want you to do it whether the state gives you that permission or not," so in my mind, that starts looking like discrimination. But let me say this, if I were to move toward gaming I probably would be deposed, I would be dethroned and kicked out of the church and the tribe, because our tribe is pretty firm in saying they would not want to be a part in gaming. My tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe.
McConnell: What’s your take on federal recognition, Ken? You’re the chief of the Upper Mattaponi - where are your people?
Adams: My people are fully behind the effort to gain federal recognition; there are six tribes in Virginia that are seeking that same acknowledgment: the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan, and the Nansemond.
McConnell: Help me understand what it means to be in a tribe. How does one know one’s Upper Mattaponi or Chickahominy?
Adams: You’re born into it.
McConnell: Was there a time in your lives where you would just as soon not have thought of yourself as an Upper Mattaponi or a Chickahominy Indian?
Adams: There were times when it didn’t feel good to be an Indian. I feel better today about being an Indian than I ever did.
McConnell: And can you feel people responding to you differently now than they did twenty years ago? Or thirty years ago?
Adams: Yes, they do, they do respond differently. But like I was saying before, that came with hard work.
Adkins: And I think elevating our visibility as we have done, elevating the public awareness of who we are has helped us. It’s hard to go any place without somebody saying, "Well, you know, I have Indian blood," and typically it was a wayward Cherokee grandmother, I mean because everybody I talk to who says, "I’m part Indian" has a Cherokee grandmother, but today there are people that live in California, Mississippi, Oregon state who are descendants of the Chickahominy tribe. To them it’s cachet. But I get no less than thirty or forty inquiries every month of people who say, "My grandfather was a Chickahominy Indian, we have been told all our lives that we are Indian, we were afraid to mention it because of the discrimination that we would face, but I want to reclaim my heritage." So all the agony that we went through, all the turmoil and struggle and strife, that has been romanticized out of the effort. People don’t see that.
McConnell: Do you resent the people calling up?
Adkins: Well, I can’t feel bad about a person who left Virginia and went someplace else for a better life. How can I hold a grudge? Again, I feel good about the folks like Ken and myself who stayed here and fought the fight.
McConnell: Do you have people who want to be part of the tribe who clearly are not at all?
Adams: It’s very rare.
Adkins: We’ll have folks to approach us who you would think were 100 percent white or 100 percent black, and I truly believe they have Indian ancestry and I feel good about it. And there are times that I can meet a fellow Indian on the street and we’ll acknowledge each other and the nod will be imperceptible to a passerby, but we have spoken and folks haven’t recognized that, but there is that camaraderie that comes out, and there’s that spirituality that we have. I spent an afternoon with Ken on an island that was Opechancanough’s home in King William County, it’s close to the Pamunkey River Nation, and when I stepped out of that car on that land and I looked at Ken, I didn’t have to ask him when he was feeling. I can feel on my shoulders the weight of my forbears. When I reach up to the side of me, I can feel him walking in lockstep with me.
McConnell: Ken and Steve, thank you for sharing your insights today on With Good Reason.
Adams: And thank you for inviting us to your program.
Adkins: You’re welcome and I’d be glad to do that again.