Connections Essay - Native Peoples
Virginia: The Land and Its Native Peoples
Native peoples have lived in the area we now call Virginia for more than 18,000 years, according to archaeologists, but many Indians believe their ancestors have always been here. Their histories and traditions are intertwined with their homelands.
Scientists no longer agree about when and how people entered the Western Hemisphere. For decades, they believed people crossed the Bering Straits about 12,000 years ago, but archaeological evidence now indicates a much earlier presence. Virginia’s first people were hunters who followed animal migrations. Over time, they developed intimate, balanced relationships with creatures, plants, and geographic formations here. Artifacts pre-dating the Clovis period by 6000 years have been found in western Tidewater, and Clovis-era points have surfaced in every Virginia county. Woodlands Indians began farming corn more than 900 years ago, developing intelligent agricultural practices suited to the climate. They tended fruits and other native plants. They fished extensively and hunted deer, smaller animals, and birds. They studied the stars and kept seasonal calendars.
Before English colonists arrived, Virginia Native peoples had developed sophisticated cultural and political systems. Within three language families – Algonquian, Siouan, and Iroquoian – were numerous dialects, and many people were multilingual. Priests and healers governed religious practices. In the Coastal Plain, some leaders inherited power through matrilineal kinship, and men and women served as chiefs. Powhatan tribes paid tribute to a paramount chief, who redistributed food and goods. Other Algonquian tribes were governed by a council of advisors. Siouan tribes, in the Piedmont, were led by chiefs whose power derived from their popularity. Reciprocity and generosity were valued, not personal wealth.
Men’s and women’s roles were defined differently but valued equally. Women directed communal agriculture and food gathering, while men hunted, fished and engaged in occasional conflicts with other tribes. Homes were of the longhouse or wigwam type, insulated with mats, sometimes covered with bark shingles. Cherokee people, in Appalachian southwest Virginia, constructed wattle-and-daub rectangular homes.
Virginia Indian history has been written from Euro-American viewpoints since 1607. Primary documents by explorers and settlers failed to incorporate indigenous perspectives and beliefs. Often, Native people were thought to have vanished, and word choices often simplified or marginalized their cultures (“villages,” “myths/legends,” “survival skills,” etc.). Only a few tribes survived the epidemics, warfare, and removal attempts over centuries. They remained farmers, and their cultures changed over time. They participated in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. They were segregated and subjected to the Racial Integrity Act (1924). Birth certificates were changed from “Indian” to “colored.” Indian one-room elementary schools were provided by counties or churches, but public high school education was unavailable to Virginia Indians until 1963.
Today, eight tribes are recognized by the Commonwealth. They remain proud of their continuing contributions as Virginians and American citizens. They have defended the U.S. in every war. They believe they are made of this land, and they belong here. Without their participation in our shared history, Virginia would be a different place altogether.
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