Del. Ken Plum: Recognizing the Natives of Virginia

This is a commentary from Del. Ken Plum (D-Fairfax), who represents Reston in Virginia’s House of Delegates. It does not reflect the opinion of Reston Now.

The Commonwealth of Virginia made a significant step last week in setting the record straight on the settlement of the land area now known as Virginia by dedicating a memorial to the earliest Virginians on the grounds of the State Capitol in Richmond. Too often discussions about the settlement of Virginia start with English settlers landing at Jamestown in 1607. While that event is most important, it should not over-shadow the fact that indigenous people lived in the region for 12,000 to 17,000 years before that depending on the archeologists with whom you speak.

How they got here is also discussion as to whether it was a northern route through what is now Alaska or east from Europe. Their population at the time the English arrived is estimated to be about 50,000. They had a system of governance built around 30 tribes in a confederation under the Powhatan paramount chiefdom. They had a system of agriculture, held religious beliefs built around nature, and were good stewards of the environment.

During two periods of history Virginia Indians were almost obliterated. The English settlers brought diseases against which the indigenous people were not immune and superior weapons that killed or drove off the Indians. In 1924 with the passage of the Racial Integrity Act in Virginia, Indians were no longer recognized. That law made you either white or if you had one drop or more of “colored” blood you were non-white. Current day Virginia Indians have great difficulty tracing their lineage because of this law that did not recognize their ancestors.

After a couple decades of study and advocacy the federal government on January 29, 2018 officially recognized seven Indian tribes along with an additional four tribes that had been recognized by the state. Only two of the tribes, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, have retained reservation lands assigned by treaties made with the colonists.

Last week Governor Ralph Northam led the ceremony on the grounds of the State Capitol dedicating Mantle, the Virginia Indian Tribute monument. The name Mantle is taken from the deerskin decorated with beads and shells that Chief Powhatan wore around his shoulders. The monument is like a labyrinth viewed by the many Indians as a sacred symbol. It is shaped like a nautilus, a growing symbol of strength. The area is naturally landscaped with a meditation area and infinity pool. Learn more at indiantribute.virginia.gov/monument.

The General Assembly held a successful Reconvened Session last week in which the Governor’s vetoes were sustained. The Special Session in which the General Assembly continues to work on a budget for the next two years has not adjourned. A budget that includes a plan for Medicaid expansion for persons who cannot afford health care is likely to be completed in the next couple of weeks. Significant progress is being made on a very important step for all Virginians.

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