Powhatan land acknowledgement

Before COVID-19 arrived in the US and prompted social distancing, self-quarantines, business closures, and event cancellations, I was scheduled to spend today moderating a conference panel at the Virginia Forum in Richmond. The three panelists would have been speaking about their work with the Rappahannock Indians, and they had invited Chief G. Anne Richardson to join us. Since we’re all at home (or perhaps fishing, but at any rate, not gathering in a crowd), I figured I’d write about it instead.

The panel’s goal was to explore the way scholars “craft history”–create narratives about the past–with the caveat that these scholars are doing so in collaboration with tribal members. In other words, the panel would recognize the Rappahannocks not as objects of study for historians and archaeologists, but as subjects articulating their own pasts in conversation with scholars and a wider public. 

Chief Richardson was elected in 1998, a fourth-generation chief from her family and the first woman to lead a Virginia tribe since the 1700s; she would have represented tribal members who had worked with our panelists, and been part of the conversation to follow the formal presentations. Scott Strickland, an archaeologist and GIS specialist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, planned to discuss his project mapping tribal settlements from the 17th to 20th centuries, which shows that the Rappahannock continued to physically inhabit their ancestral homelands despite efforts to remove and erase them. Woodie Walker, a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, planned to discuss Rappahannock participation at the 1957 Jamestown Festival to commemorate the 350th anniversary of Jamestown’s founding; the festival allowed the Rappahannock to publicly perform Indianness, demonstrating their cultural knowledge and shaping positive attitudes towards Indians at a moment in history when Virginia tribes struggled for visibility. Dr. Edward Ragan, a historian at Centenary College of Louisiana, planned to discuss the Rappahannocks’ century-long struggle for formal, legal recognition by the federal government, an effort in which he has been involved for over twenty years.

Before introducing everyone, I had planned to read the following statement to begin the session, with no preamble:

Thomas Harriot traveled with the first Roanoke expedition in 1585, and produced the page above as part of his effort to learn Algonquian and develop a writing system to record sounds very different from English. Algonquian words and phrases written in this system appear throughout his notes on natural philosophy and mathematics. William Strachey later compiled around 400 words he believed spoken by Virginia Indians into his A Dictionarie of the Indian Language.

(1)–Wi’InGaNaKoa, AnXKaPa U’SkaoTiu, CaMa Cesk CaMei.

(2)–NiKenNeNahTos KiNaWun NaPin PoHaTen CepSin, WúTaXúnTas ČeNaKoMaKa’Ank.

(3)–TaXanTas Ok NiTaPeiWak, KiNaWun DúTúWes TaoNu DúNaPeiWak SuTaNoWas, KiNaWun NaMe DúNaPeiWak WeMaCin.

(4)–YúA PoHaTen PihNoHwan, Yu’A PoHaTen CepSin. KeKiu.*

(1)–Hello, good afternoon, and welcome/greetings all friends.

(2)–I understand well we sit/combine/gather on Powhatan land, foreigners/settlers in Tsenacomoco (Virginia). 

(3)–Strangers and friends, (we can) listen when Indians speak, (we can) see Indians in this, their home.

(4)–This is their language, this is their land. They’re alive/they remain.

For those of you unfamiliar with land acknowledgements, or territory acknowledgements, like the one I just read, this is something scholars of indigenous studies have started trying to do over the past few years, and a number of institutions have officially adopted these statements as well. Their purpose is to recognize that we as a population inhabit settler colonial states, nations formed as settlers from elsewhere claimed land and developed their own identities, societies, and institutions. That process displaces, sometimes eliminates (including through genocide), the original inhabitants and their cultures–settler colonists “attempt to engineer the disappearance of the original inhabitants everywhere except in nostalgia,” to borrow Nancy Shoemaker’s paraphrase of Patrick Wolfe. The premise of this theory is that colonialism has not ended, but continues to be enacted by suppressing indigenous voices–the daily lives of settler colonists perpetuate the erasure of indigenous people, despite the fact that they continue to inhabit their ancestral homelands, maintain distinctive cultures, and identify and function as communities. Land acknowledgements are designed to draw attention to this fact, to make visible indigenous people and their relationship with the land, and to complicate our own relationship with that land by recognizing that we continue to participate in colonialism.

John Smith’s map of Virginia manifests settler colonialism, in that it overwrites indigenous history and names with English, and imposes English concepts onto the landscape it claims as a means of bolstering English territorial claims and informing English settlements.

This is the first land acknowledgement I’ve participated in, partly because such statements often seem somewhat pro forma, token acknowledgements rather than commitments that carry beyond that statements. However, I’m inspired today by two considerations. First, a conversation with a senior colleague who heard a land acknowledgement for the first time earlier this year, and told me she had found it very powerful simply to hear the name of the people indigenous to the land on which her conference was held–that that was important in itself. If that’s the impact on an audience, I think I need to rethink my reluctance. Second, we are hearing from three scholars who work with the Rappahannocks in a continuing relationship that serves the tribe as well as scholarly knowledge. This is scholarship as produced by the Rappahannocks, in conversation with academics; indigenous people are authors of their own histories, not simply objects of study from the past. Our panel is actively working to mitigate some of the effects of colonialism, at the very least the silence it tries to impose on Native voices; the very fact of collaboration, as well as the rewriting of historical narratives, are products of the Rappahannocks’ autonomy and sovereignty in the face of settler colonialism, and address the effects of settler colonialism in important ways.

*This is imperfect. The Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia has been offering an Algonquian/Powhatan language class for years, but only recently opened it to non-tribal members. I spent last year in the Beginners class, this year in the Intermediate. My teacher has not yet reviewed this statement with me, and as a student, I made some decisions he may disagree with in how I conveyed these sentiments. The English translation isn’t quite literal, but does its best to faithfully reproduce the general sentiments expressed in Algonquian. I actually began with a vocabulary list of Algonquian words, and then used those to build a statement reflective of land acknowledgements I have witnessed. Algonquian-speakers have adopted a set of syllabic characters to write this language, but I do not have that keyboard, nor would my rudimentary language skills allow me to effectively read it aloud.

This entry was posted in Virginia history and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Powhatan land acknowledgement

  1. Woodie Walker says:

    I like the idea of reassessing what we think about land acknowledgements. I experienced my first at VCU last year and thought it was meaningful. Wish we could have used yours today at the Virginia Forum.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Woodie! It’s a work in progress, but that’s what this space is for. Hopefully I keep working with Virginia Tribes and this gets stronger with some help.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *