Spanish soldiers made often brutal explorations into the southeastern area of North America, including Virginia, all throughout the sixteenth century. The English themselves attempted a colony at Roanoke long before succeeding at Jamestown, where the colonists came in contact with the Pamunkey Indians as well as other Tribes of the Powhattan Confederacy. However Jamestown was the first lasting, if not, ultimately, permanent English colony. The story of Pocahontas and John Smith as popularly retold is representative of the mythologizing of European-Indian contact. Smith himself recorded Pocahontas to have been ten years old when he met her. Other estimates place her at twelve years of age. There is no evidence at all that they were ever lovers, and contemporary Pamunkey Indians do not believe so. Many historians have also long doubted the story, offered only by Smith many years later, that Pocahontas intervened on his behalf when he was captured by the Pamunkey. Nonetheless, Smith established a friendship with Chief Powhattan that did lead to some period of friendly, if never truly trustful relations between the colonists and the Pamunkey. The common story ends there, with most Americans left not to wonder how it is that, as far they know, the Pamunkey no longer exist. They do not learn that over 22 years of off-and-on conflict, the Tribes of the Powhattan Confederacy fought back against English encroachment until they were finally defeated, their number nearly, but not quite eliminated in 1644. Although they lost their language about 150 years ago, some Pamunkey continue to live on the oldest reservation in the United States, established by treaty. Kevin Brown has been their Chief since December 2008.
AJA: Describe the Pamunkey reservation and community.
KB: The reservation has been described as an “Island, a hideaway, a secret place.” Maybe that’s why we’ve been able to keep a lot of our traditions, while other native people have lost theirs.
AJA: How many people live on the reservation?
KB: There are 38 households on the rez with about 75 people total. There are a lot of retired people. Most people move back here after retirement.
AJA: What are the Tribe’s sources of revenue?
KB: The tribes sources of revenue are land rental for agriculture and marsh rental for duck hunting.
AJA: What is the history of the reservation?
KB: The treaties of 1646 and 1677 established the reservation as we know it. We are descendants of Oppechancanough, Powhatan’s brother. Our oral history states that “He was carried on to the battlefield on a stretcher to watch his men attack the English (1644). He was so old, two warriors had to stand on each side of him and hold his eyelids open to watch the battle. He was then captured and taken prisoner to Jamestown where he was shot in the back. During the Civil War we piloted ships for the Union, and the Confederates heard about it and rounded up every male of the tribe and marched us off to Richmond to be hanged. One man escaped , Chief Terrill Bradby, and hid in a railroad culvert, while the troops searched for him. Robert E. Lee pardoned everyone.
AJA: What is the nature of your work as Chief of the Pamunkey tribe?
KB: I have administrative duties as well as legislative responsibilities. I’m basically “the complaint department”. If somebody has an issue with someone, they come to me. I can’t always do anything about it, but I guess that people feel good about having someone that will listen to them.
AJA: You work, too, on getting the Tribe federal recognition. How is it that a Tribe with so long and well recorded a history does not have federal recognition? Whom do you liaise with at the federal level? Also, I believe you have Virginia state recognition? With whom do you liaise at the state level?
KB: I spend 20 to 40 hours a week working on our petition for federal recognition. We were just overlooked in 1776. That’s when we should have received it. Our treaty pre-dates the Constitution. The BIA determines who gets recognition. The Native American Rights Fund is representing us. We deal directly with the Governor of Virginia at the state level. Our treaty is with England. The Governor used to be the Crown’s representative in Virginia.
AJA: How did you come to be chief?
KB: I was elected as Chief. I only won by one vote. We have an election every four years. We have no term limits. We had one Chief that was elected to 11 consecutive terms.
AJA: Why did you seek to become Chief? What do you hope to accomplish?
KB: I ran for Chief partly out of frustration. I felt that we weren’t working hard enough on federal recognition, and the tribe was not promoting Indian culture. I hope to push towards federal recognition, and have set up a series of cultural workshops, in beadwork, basket making, language, regalia, drum making, pottery.
AJA: What is your own family history?
KB: My Grandfather was born and raised on the Reservation. He was also Senior Councilman. My great, great grandfather was Chief. I moved here after I graduated from high school in Pennsylvania.
AJA: How did you and so many other Pamunkey come to live off the reservaton in Pennsylvania? Didn’t you spend time living on the Iroquois Reservation? How has that shaped you?
KB: My Grandfather moved his family to Pennsylvania to find work. I moved back with Him to the rez after he retired. I traveled to some of the Iroquois rez’s and was married and lived at Onondaga for 10 or 12 years. The Iroquois are much more traditional than we are, and I hope to bring some of that tradition here.
AJA: In the 1970s, you experienced an evolution in your consciousness as a Native American. Tell us about your experiences.
KB: I moved back after spending many summer vacations here. I was looking for something in my life, and boy did I find it. I found a whole generation of Indians that were reaching out and trying to connect with others. I had a van, and traveled to reservations all over the country. Many of my old friends are now Tribal Chairmen and Councilman, and educators. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of a movement that meant something.
AJA: You seem to think that period was important and beneficial. It is controversial and connected to some violence. What are your thoughts about all of that? Also, why do you think the energy and spirit of that time has been absent for so long since?
KB: Everyone seemed to have settled down to raise kids or take their place in their communities. We are near the time of the prophecies, and our traditions will help us survive in the next world. (2012) The Hopi say that the first world was destroyed by fire, the second by ice, the third by flood, and the fourth will be destroyed by fire again.
AJA: Do you have any particular feelings about the terms Native American and American Indian?
KB: Indians are Indians. I don’t know anyone that calls themselves, “a Native American.”
AJA: How do you feel about athletic teams that have Native mascots or that have names associated with Native culture?
KB: I hate to say that I’m a “Redskins fan,” but it’s the only games that they broadcast in this area. I like the Blackhawk’s logo. The Cleveland Indians need to “give it up”. I guess it all depends on the intent.
AJA: How do you feel about non-Natives who seek to practice forms of Native spirituality?
KB: I used to be hard on Non-Indians that wanted to hang out w/ Indians, or learn stuff. Now I have a little more respect for those people. We can learn a lot from some non-Natives.
AJA: What has been your experience of relations with the surrounding Virginian population?
KB: It never seems to change. There are some really great people out there, and there are some real jerks too.
AJA: Spoken like a good politician. One older member of your Tribe told me that white people had treated him like shit all of his life. Given the fact that the Europeans “won” – they got the land and made their own country – why do you think any white people today would have any kind of animus against Indians?
KB: White people are uncomfortable around Indians because they know that their ancestors gave us a raw deal, and we deserve justice. But they turn a blind eye toward it and don’t want to give up anything.
AJA: Eastern woodland Tribes have very different histories from that of, say, the Western plains Tribes. For one thing, the ultimate conquest by European settlers came centuries earlier. What are your thoughts about how this influences the nature of the tribes’ different experiences and, perhaps, present needs?
KB: The western tribes need to know that we fought for centuries before they ever saw a white man. We Pamunkeys fought a 22 year war against the English, but Chief Joseph gets all the credit for fighting for 2 years
AJA: Should I understand from you answer that maybe the Eastern tribes tend to be overlooked in the consideration of Indian issues and needs? And why do you think it is that there is greater awareness of and attention to the Western tribes?
KB: Most of the time Eastern Indians don’t get the respect that we deserve. Sometimes it’s from the Western Tribes, sometimes the government. We need to work together better and renew old alliances.
AJA: How do you imagine the future for the Pamunkey and Native Americans in general? Given the unalterable past, what is it that you would want from American society?
KB: We just want the same opportunities that the federally recognized tribes have. We deserve it.
AJA: What are the benefits of federal recognition?
KB: One of the benefits of federal recognition is trust lands. We can “buy back” our land and use it for economic development: smoke shops, casinos, golf courses, shopping malls.
Photography by Julia Dean