The Pamunkey Indian Tribe and the United States Government; A Gesture Long Overdue

I’m departing this week from Abandoned Country‘s theme of disappearing history to comment on a significant event: the United States government has given preliminary approval for recognition of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia. They’re the first indigenous nation in Virginia to receive that acknowledgement.

That’s very big news, and a departure of sorts because the Pamunkey aren’t disappearing, nor have they ever been. They were here long before the first Europeans set foot in this hemisphere. They’ll be around for countless generations more. Life will go on as usual for the Pamunkey, but this new designation may have significant implications for this ancient tribe and other nearby Virginia Indians.

The government will confer legal recognition after a 13-month waiting period that gives time for public comments and other official obligations, but the tribe has widespread support in Virginia and beyond.

That the Pamunkey are an Indian tribe was never in doubt. Identity, after all, isn’t something that can be quantified; it is a product of collective memory, common world views, shared history, and the Pamunkey have that cache of intangible experiences that speak to their existence as a nation. Their past is sufficient declaration to validate their claim to tribal status.

Where hard-and-fast evidence is required, though, the Pamunkey teem with it, in the old folkways now very much alive in the modern community. Pamunkey hands are still caked with local clay as they spin, pinch and fire pottery. Testament to the long history of this ritual are the ancient shards found on the banks of the Pamunkey River, the buried pits where, centuries ago, women discarded broken, imperfect vessels. Pamunkey men still carry on the timeless ritual of fishing, setting nets each spring for the American shad that run up their river. Tribesmen spawn millions of young fry in their hatchery and release them back into the Pamunkey River, embracing a long tradition, too, of giving back to the natural world they consider themselves a part of.

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Left: The Pamunkey Shad Hatchery    Right: Pamunkey men ready for fishing

The Pamunkey were among the first Native Americans to greet Englishmen, who in 1607 set up camp in Tsenacommacah–the name of Powhatan’s dominion long before it became Virginia. The tribe appears in historical records early and often. Wahunsonacock and Matoaka, known the world over as Powhatan and Pocahontas, were Pamunkey. The tribe signed treaties with the English in 1646 and 1677, the latter firmly establishing the Pamunkey’s reservation on the banks of the river of the same name.

That treaty likewise established an annual tribute to Virginia’s governor in lieu of property taxes for the 1,200-acre reservation, which the tribe was guaranteed forever. Every year, on the steps of the Executive Mansion in Richmond, the Pamunkey, along with the only other reservated tribe in Virginia, the Mattaponi, present the governor, who attends in person, crafts fashioned by their own artisans and wild game killed on their own lands. The Pamunkey are proud that they’ve upheld their end of the treaty for more than 330 years.

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Top: Scenes from the Pamunkey Indian Reservation

Bottom: Pamunkey tribesmen present Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife the annual offering of wild game

The Pamunkey Indian Reservation, home to 80 or so people, is a state within a state. The Pamunkey are a sovereign nation and their reservation sovereign ground. Tribal law supersedes state law there. A tribal council, headed by a chief, governs Pamunkey affairs. Elections occur every four years and voters use pea and corn kernels tossed into a basket instead of paper or voice votes.

Though Pamunkey hold dear their ancient heritage, that’s not to say they’re detached from the world around them. There are roughly 200 members of the tribe today who live all around the United States and have forged all manner of careers for themselves, from repairmen to archaeologists. But Pamunkeys’ unique lineage has afforded them a position few other citizens hold, living in two worlds, Virginia Indian and American.

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Left: A Pamunkey boy and a friend (my son) play on the banks of the Pamunkey River

Right: The Pamunkey Indian Museum and old schoolhouse

The United States government was slow to acknowledge the Pamunkey Indians’ tribal status, even though the Commonwealth of Virginia legally did so in 1983; even though the Pamunkey’s documented existence predates the United States by more than a century; even though a law passed by Congress in 1980 (Public Law 96-484) referred to the Pamunkey as an Indian tribe; even though the 1910 United States census identified 96 Indian individuals living on the reservation in 1910, and that nearly two-thirds of current members can document generation-by-generation descent from at least one of those early residents; even though the Pamunkey have been featured in an exhibit called “Our Lives” in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian since 2004.

Federal recognition took a long time for a few reasons. First, the effort by Pamunkey Indians to be acknowledged by the United States government is a recent phenomenon, originating in the last decades of the twentieth century. Also, their petition was through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, which, like most agencies of the government, is a bureaucracy whose workings scoot along at a snail’s pace. What’s more, the BIA understandably requires thorough documentation of Indian ancestry, and, in Virginia anyway, that’s not simply a matter of pulling dusty old volumes out of storage. The King William County courthouse burned in 1885. Also, a state registrar in the 1920s ordered Indian birth certificates changed so that they read “colored” instead of “Indian.” To get around those dead ends, the Pamunkey used census and church records to catalog their Indian identity.

For the Pamunkey, federal recognition is foremost a matter of principle–getting the very government that they’ve been loyal to, that they’ve served in the military and other civil capacities, that they predate as a nation, to acknowledge that they are who they say they are.

Practically, recognition opens the tribe to federal health, housing and education grants that the United States government offers to almost 600 other Indian tribes. To be clear, however, the Pamunkey are not an indigent people residing on some barren patch of out-of-the-way land. Their reservation today is a well-kept rural community, one that was there long before any modern subdivision. The Pamunkey were never in this for the money.

Recognition also confers a sort of pioneer status on the Pamunkey. Fourteen other Virginia tribes have submitted a letter of intent to the government saying they will be seeking federal recognition. Six of them hope to achieve that through an act of Congress. It’s not clear what sort of leverage the Pamunkey’s recognition will give these other tribes’ efforts.

Also not certain is the nature of the relationship between the federal government and, at least for now, what will be Virginia’s only recognized Indian tribe. There are several uncertainties that will work themselves out as time goes on. For example, the estimated 1,400 sets of Virginia Indian remains stored at museums, including the National Museum of Natural History, have not undergone repatriation for lack of a federally recognized tribe to claim them. Will the Pamunkey all of a sudden become the custodians of the bones of so many of their Virginia Indian ancestors? No telling.

For now, though, the Pamunkey are no doubt satisfied that the federal government has done what it should have done a long time ago and acknowledged their status as a nation, their title as custodians of this land long before the United States existed.

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About Ben Swenson

Ben lives in Williamsburg, Virginia. He is writing a book on places of historic value that have been forgotten and are being reclaimed by nature. Abandoned Country is a companion blog to that project. You can contact him at
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15 Responses to The Pamunkey Indian Tribe and the United States Government; A Gesture Long Overdue

  1. Steve Greaves says:

    Fine piece of writing on an indeed significant achievement. Thanks for your work.

  2. Kim Cook Taylor says:

    It’s about time. We have worked on this for so long. I would love to see us getting our Pamunkey Bones and other artifacts that were taken from us. Also cute picture of my son, River Ottigney Cook.

    • Joan Gibson says:

      Your son looks a lot like my dad and me when we were about that age. When I first saw his photo I was stunned, speechless. River is cute, we know! And, we are biased! We also look like Ken Bradby and many of the living Adkins and my grandfather looked like Peach in some photos and I can see Major Cook’s face in mine some days (lemur like).

      We are of Pamunkey descent – Gibsons, Collinses, Adkins,some relation to the Bradbys from way back (documented through the 1793/1805 Evans’ family slave petition, VA, I think it is in Lunenberg Co – it’s online at Deloris Williams’ website, an Evans and Gibson family genealogist) and on and on.

      We may be related to Pocahontas through the red Bollings as that family as well as the Collinses, Bunches, Turners, Goins, Bramhams and others lived in close proximity and migrated together as a Saponi tribe from Louisa Co, VA to Orange Co, VA in the 1740’s.

      The Pamunkey tribe isn’t interested in our genealogy, but, it’s fascinating. Ever hear of Thomas Gibson of the 1608 Second Supply to Jamestown? He lived among the Pamunkey in 1608, helping to build an European style home for Wahunsonacock. I am quite sure he is my grandfather and by the 1640’s we were mostly Indian, living in Charles City and Surry Counties, VA. I have my Gibsons documented back to the 1640’s into Surry Co, VA (Thomas Gibson/Gibbons born around 1647, apparently a sawyer and cask builder and a participant in Bacon’s Rebellion, and whom I believe is his sister and brother and definitely related to us through DNA testing, Jane Gibson the Elder, Indian Woman and her younger brother George Gibson)and later we migrated to NC (not my direct line) and were Indian traders in Orange Co, NC and later as that line fanned out into TN and KY, known as melungeons.

      My gggggg grandfather was Gilbert Gibson of Henrico and Louisa Counties and the earliest public record on him was being paid for wolf trapping in Henrico County in the late 1690’s. He was a “star” in Louisa Co, VA public records after that, always in some kind of trouble, like being whipped in his sixties for selling liquor without a license or trying to run out of town with his household goods and owing money. He was colourful to say the least.

      Many of your tribal photos from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s resemble my family members.

      It’s a small “New” world!

      I am completely supportive of federal recognition. The Pamunkey took the big hit from the Jamestown settlers and did keep the idiots alive, along with Smith’s soldiering methods.

      It’s all a sad history and I feel very ambivalent about it, but, I am of mixed bloods, so understandable. I try to see the good that came out of it, but, it wasn’t so good for the Indians and my heritage was pretty much done in by genocide. But, we are in this world and must go on with the highest thought we can.

      Perhaps some day I will visit the Pamunkey, but, I am a long way from VA, in Maine, living near the Penobscot. All of my nieces are of Penobscot descent.

      Best wishes to you and the tribe. I just wish you all would somehow recognize those of us who are also of Pamunkey descent.

      • Kim Taylor says:

        River is a Bradby, Cook of Pamunkey and an Adkins from Chickahominy. Would like to see some pics of your family.

        • Joan Gibson says:

          Wendy, just found your comment. My email address is: I am more than happy to send along to you old photos of my Gibson family if you could email me. We apparently descend from the parents of Jane Gibson the Elder, Indian Woman, of Charles City Co, VA, born in the 1640’s. Her brother I am quite sure was Thomas Gibson/Gibbons, born around 1647 of Surry Co, VA (he was an Indian-white fellow and my documented grandfather). Her descendants are the Evans (Evans’ Family Slave Petition of the late 1700’s) and Mingo Jackson, aka Thomas Gibson – he was related to my Gibsons of Louisa Co, VA, and autosomal DNA showed relation. The petition states these people as being related to the Scott, Bradbys and Redcrosses aka Evans. I am wondering if one of the early Bradbys married a Gibson/Evans descendant, as I am told there was a marriage to a Chickahominy woman in the early 1700’s by First Emigrant Bradby’s son and I believe Jane Gibson the Elder may have been Chickahominy based on where she was living at the time of her death in the 1720’s. Caroline Bradby (Chief George Major Cook’s mother) had a brother named Evans Bradby and Caroline looks like us as do several Pamunkey tribal members from photos in the early 1900’s and earlier. (We Gibsons have loads of Georges in our line, back several hundred years and it is not a common name in many families.) Your son reminds me of my dad when he was a boy and Dad looks like Union Collins when Union was a boy, classic male Gibson features. The Gibsons and Collins have intermarried for centuries. We were the last of the Saponi…..

          • David Collins Jr. says:

            You said Dad Looks like Union Collins when Union was a boy. What did you base that comment on?
            Was this Union the son Of Wyld Wynn [sp.] Collins?

      • Sean Morrissey says:

        Jane Gibson the Elder was my 9th great-grandmother. Her gggg-granddaugher, Mary Evans, was the daughter of Thomas Evans and Elizabeth Gatewood. Mary was born Abt. 1757 in Amherst County, VA. She was “married” David Bly. There is no marriage bond due to the anti-miscegenation law of 1691. They had a son named John, born December 23, 1780. David bought land from William Gatewood, and David and Mary were neighbors of Stanhope Evans.

        Eventually, David moved his wife and son near Lexington, Kentucky. On August 3, 1788, he sold land in that area to William Gatewood, Jr. I have the record of the deed. David passed away in 1800 in Madison County. Mary passed away in 1813 in nearby Bath County, Kentucky. I proved it all with land deeds. I know back then that they kept the land in the family.

  3. Congratulations on this very important and Historic achievement. It is unfortunate that the First Americans have become the last Americans to gain their rightful place in American history, and even then after having to beg for it, sometimes for generations. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait for the Federal Government to rightly define us. We have a history, and a noble one, that predates those who insist we stand at the gate and beg for an entrance onto the American Landscape. Now the rightful thing to do next, is to grant the other Virginia Tribes their place in the ranks of those who enjoy Federal Recognition.

  4. It is about time that the Federal Government Pamunkey as Tribe

  5. Congratulations to the Pamunkey Nation’s self-determination and self-defining moment with the Federal Government! Please do not hold the actions of the Congressional Black Caucus against all of us black Americans. Thank you!

  6. Mark Collins says:

    My Great Grandfather is John Temple Collins . His Pamunkey blood runs through me. I know he is with us in spirit and is PROUD just like his children and children’s children to know that the Pamunkey Reservation and it’s people are alive and well and finally getting the recognition and respect that they deserve

  7. Joan Gibson says:

    Also, Wendy, meant to say, Angie Adkins, Chickahominy, had a great grandfather James Gibson who married Mattie Moore. He looks just like my Gibsons and my autosomal DNA matches most frequently Moores. My gggggg grandfather was Gilbert Gibson of Louisa Co, VA. He was Indian/white and his neighbors were the Moores. Another neighbor was Thomas Gibson, a Saponi, whose YDNA is an almost perfect match to Gilbert’s. It appears Gilbert was Thomas’ son and Thomas left Louisa Co, VA with many other families to migrate to NC to “live like Indians.” We were assimilated. This is why I am so glad the Pamunkey are still around.

  8. Honorable Shirley Cooper- Former Delegate says:

    I am so happy that the Pamunkey Tribe received recognition from the Federal government. When I was their Delegate in the General Assembly of Virginia
    representing the 96th district, we worked on this. That was in the 1990’s. I also for a short period of time, was the Chairman of the Council on Indians in Virginia. The Sharron school, one room school house in King William County was returned to them after we negotiated with King William county. I put in many resolutions in Richmond for the Virginia Tribes. There are 8 Virginia recognized tribes, but this is the first US recognized tribe in Virginia. My sincere blessing to the tribe and leaders.
    Former Delegate Shirley F. Cooper- 96th district

  9. Honorable Shirley Cooper- Former Delegate says:

    Please feel free to contact me, if there are other ways I can help.
    God Bless
    Shirley Cooper

  10. Honorable Shirley Cooper- Former Delegate says:

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