The press reports on boxes containing the skeletal remains of more than 130 Native Americans who died in Virginia centuries ago that are held at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
They were citizens of the Patawomeck and Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) tribes and their remains date to 1580. The bones were excavated by the Smithsonian during an archeological dig in the 1960s.
Both tribes want the museum to return the remains so their ancestors can be restored to their proper resting places.
“Their spirits are not walking free,” said Chief Walt D. “Red Hawk” Brown III of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Tribe. “Because they are in shoe boxes – not where they are supposed to be.”
To reclaim the ancestral remains, the tribes must petition the Smithsonian Institute. But there’s a catch: The institute can turn over the bones only to a tribe that has official recognition from a state government.
“It is important for our tribe to take possession of the many skeletal remains of our early forebears,” said Bill “Night Owl” Deyo, the Patawomeck tribal historian. “We were told that those remains would not be released to us unless we became a state-recognized tribe.”
After years of pleading, the Indians finally got that recognition this spring.
The 2010 Virginia General Assembly passed resolutions extending state recognition to three Native American tribes: the Chereonhaka (Nottoway) Indians, the Patawomeck Indians and the Nottaway Indian Tribe.
State recognition has significance beyond allowing the Patawomeck and Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) tribes to petition for the return of their ancestral remains from the Smithsonian.
The General Assembly’s actions also give the three tribes the ability to establish their historical identities.
“State tribe recognition means that the tribes will be able to claim their heritage in Virginia’s history, classrooms, books and ceremonies such as the inauguration (of the Virginia governor),” Tyler said.
Legislators also gave the three tribes representation on the Virginia Council on Indians.
Many Native American identities were lost because of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Under that state law, it was illegal to declare any race other than white or “colored.” Virginians who said they were Native American could be arrested.
According to the Nottoway Indians’ website, the Racial Integrity Act forced many Native Americans to live outside their culture.
“Native Americans have lived through decades of legal and historical oppression,” the site states. “Survival was achieved by living quietly.”
With state recognition, tribes are slowly reclaiming their identities and teaching the history of their people.