We Are Not Going To Go Away
“Colonial Williamsburg” Journal
Andrew G. Gardner
Virginia’s Pamunkey Indians Greeted the Jamestown Settlers, but They Are Still Waiting for National Recognition
Beyond Virginia’s borders, the Pamunkey Indians are remembered, when they are remembered at all, mostly for a princess named Pocahontas. England’s Queen Elizabeth II probably knows more about the tribe than the average American: in 2007 she met a Pamunkey delegation during celebrations of Jamestown’s 400th anniversary.
When the 1607 colonists landed, the Pamunkey— 1,000 warriors strong—were the most powerful of the thirty-two tribes in the Powhatan paramount chiefdom, the loose association of Native Americans that dominated the Chesapeake region. Hunter gatherers, they looked to the woodlands for meat, clothing, and the stuff of shelter, fished the rivers, and grew such crops as maize, beans, and squash. Fifteen to twenty thousand people, the Powhatan commanded more than six thousand square miles, a territory that ranged leagues inland from the bay, all its tribes tributary to the Pamunkey chief Wahunsonacock, Pocahontas’s father. Now the Pamunkey domain amounts to a 1,200-acre King William County reservation twenty-five miles east of Richmond. There, thirty-four families—fewer than eighty people—make livings from renting out land for farming and duck hunting. About 120 more Pamunkey are scattered across the country.
Nevertheless, they are “a people who refused to vanish,” as historian Helen Rountree says. One of eight tribes Virginia recognizes, only they and their neighbors the Mattaponi established reservations, each secured by seventeenth-century treaties with Charles I and Charles II. In a 1677 compact, the Pamunkey agreed to pay to the governor a rent of “twentie beaver skinns” each autumn, a fee later amended to “Fin, Fur, or Feather.” They say that in 350 years they have not missed a payment of fish, wild turkey, or venison, these days ceremoniously delivered to the steps of the governor’s mansion in Richmond…
…The next century would bring them a new challenge— one that would have profound repercussions— repercussions felt today.
Walter Ashby Plecker was a medical doctor by training. Born ten days before the Civil War began—his father fought for the Confederacy—Plecker became Virginia’s first state public health officer, eventually administering its new Vital Statistics Office for more than thirty years. Plecker, a white supremacist, was an enthusiast for the popular late nineteenth-century pseudoscience eugenics. Eugenicists believed in the racial inferiority of all non-Caucasians, and promoted strict segregation to forestall the procreation of whites with African Americans and others.
In 1924, Virginia adopted the Racial Integrity Act, a statute that decreed but two possible racial classifications: white or “colored.” Plecker, who lobbied for the measure, wrote in 1925 of “the considerable number of degenerate white women giving rise to mulatto children.” Keeper of the state’s births, deaths, and marriages records, he used his office to advance his beliefs and the state’s stringent racial codes, enactments that outlawed black and white marriages. Plecker embraced an extralegal “one drop rule,” which held that anyone with so much as a drop of “black blood” in his or her veins should be classified black—which he did.
Virginia’s Indians were not the primary targets of the racial restrictions—they were classified with whites—but they, Pamunkey included, became the law’s and Plecker’s victims anyway. In Plecker’s mind there was no longer such thing as a “pureblood” Virginia Indian. To him, all were descended of unions with free blacks. Suspecting that blacks were trying to pass as Indians to gain white status, particularly in the Chickahominy tribe, he ordered the state’s records of Indians revised to classify them all as “colored.” The legislature, however, adopted a “Pocahontas exception.” Realizing that prominent Virginians claiming Indian descent, including from the Pamunkey princess, would be now be classified as “colored,” the lawmakers excused individuals of one-sixteenth or less Native American ancestry.
“In Plecker’s mind we simply just did not exist,” Chief Kevin Brown says. “It was paper genocide pure and simple. Administratively, he was wiping us off the map.”
In 1969 the Supreme Court of the United States threw out the Racial Integrity Act. But for the Pamunkey and the other Virginia tribes, Plecker’s obsession still has a sting in its tail…
Read the entire article here.