The Quite People

The once-silent Nansemond Indians are speaking out — and it will be a time of Thanksgiving for their tribe if a storied Virginia heritage is recognized with the return of lands and legacy.

By Phyllis Speidell

Photos by John H. Sheally II

Fred Bright was 12 and living in Portsmouth when he learned that he was Native American, a Nansemond. It was a memorable moment—as his father broke the news, his grandmother stormed from the room.

“She went to her grave saying that there were no Indians in our family,” Bright says.

That was about 60 years ago, when Alvin “Buddy” Bond was also growing up in Portsmouth. Bond knew his paternal grandmother was Mary Ellen Bass, a Nansemond, and he was proud of the lineage and his childhood Indian name, “Two Feathers,” but “no one talked about it,” he says. “Indians were put down and the family kept it quiet.” Bond’s niece Sandy McCready, secretary of the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association, has similar memories from Churchland in the 1960s.

“Mother (Bond’s older sister) always told us we had a Native American heritage but also told us not to broadcast it,” she says. “Not that it was something to be ashamed of but to keep quiet about being an Indian.”

Earl Bass, 57 and assistant chief of the Nansemonds, was living in Loxley Place in Portsmouth then. He knew from the age of 6 that he was an Indian. “We were Indian in the house,” he says. “But Mom told us not to tell anyone we were.”

Juanita Towle, 90, grew up in Ocean View, well aware of her father’s Nansemond descent, but her mother decided the family should claim her Irish ancestry.

“We had to tell so many fibs about not being Indian that I wanted that part of my heritage to vanish,” Towle remembers.

Virginia’s history of official and unofficial discrimination pressured hundreds of Native Americans to deny or at least conceal their ancestry. Silence was a survival strategy, enabling them to blend into the community—as neighbors, coworkers and friends—often without ever revealing their tribal connection. Now, when people claim bragging rights to a Cherokee or Sioux ancestor way back when, the Nansemonds’ silence might seem over-done. But history proves their collective caution was warranted—and so effective that photographer John Sheally and I are no longer surprised when someone asks “What’s a Nansemond?” or questions what a Nansemond has ever accomplished.

Over the years that we’ve covered the Nansemonds and their efforts to reclaim their heritage as Hampton Road’s only surviving indigenous tribe, John and I have talked with dozens of tribe members whose experiences answer those questions. Their numbers include decorated military veterans, educators, nurses, artisans, business people, technicians, farmers and civil service workers. They work on the railroad, in the shipyard and in law enforcement. One was a professional prize fighter, another a pro football player, and several others of the tribe have been legendary guides in the Dismal Swamp, often leading rescue searches for lost hunters and hikers.

A year ago the Nansemonds, after more than a decade of negotiations, convinced the city of Suffolk to return about 70 acres of their ancestral lands along the shores of the Nansemond River in Chuckatuck at what is now a city park, Lone Star Lakes. They plan to establish a cultural/educational center including an authentic replica Nansemond village.

The location is critical. Captain John Smith documented several Nansemond towns in that area in 1608. And every August as the tribe opens its pow-wow there Chief Barry Bass knows to expect red tail hawks swooping and circling overhead—just as they might have done centuries ago.

The agreement with the city remains hung up in cloudy legalities, but the Nansemonds’ connection to that land and to Hampton Roads is written clearly in their history.

Four hundred years ago southeastern Virginia was home to Algonquianspeaking Indians collectively known as Powhatans, named after the leader Powhatan, who ruled most of them including the Nansemonds. According to Dr. Helen C. Rountree, professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University, people have been living in this region for at least 15,000 years. The Nansemonds’ ancestors may have moved in as early as A.D. 200.

Rountree, a leading authority on Virginia Indians, fi lls us in on their early history. She credits the “moccasin telegraph” with spreading word in 1585/86 that strangers from the settlement on Roanoke Island, N.C., were staying with the Chesapeake Indians, probably around the Lynnhaven Inlet.

Bright, treasurer of the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association and the tribe genealogist, agrees that refugees from the doomed Lost Colony probably sought shelter with the friendly Chesapeakes. According to tradition, Bright says, Powhatan misinterpreted an oracle’s warning that trouble coming from the East referred to the Chesapeakes and ordered his brother to raise a force to obliterate them. That army may have included Nansemonds who could have taken some of the lost colonists captive.

The Nansemonds’ first meeting with Captain John Smith in 1608 is better documented—and at least twice by the Captain. In his first account of their meeting Smith describes the Indians as friendly, but by 1624, when the English were at war with the Indians, Smith wrote of the 1608 meeting as an encounter with hostile Nansemonds from whom he forcefully seized corn to supply the settlers. The English further triggered hostilities in 1609 when they invaded the Nansemonds’ sacred grounds and storehouse on an island in the Nansemond River. It was a bloody confrontation.

The Nansemonds, at the time of their first experiences with the English, numbered about 1200 and lived along the Nansemond River in villages of scattered longhouses (not teepees) and fi elds. They raised corn, beans and squash, supplementing their crops with wild edible plants, game, fi sh and shellfi sh. They moved their houses and crops every three or four years as the old fi elds played out. Because the Nansemonds lived from the earth, with mostly biodegradable household goods, only limited artifacts have been found in the archaeological sites up and down the waterways.

“There’s no word in any Indian language for ‘land ownership,’” Bass says, explaining that the Indians used and respected the land but never owned it.

When the 1622 Indian War, sparked by the English seizing Indian lands on the upper James River, broke out the Nansemonds fought in loyalty to the other tribes and had their own lands raided in retribution. By the end of the war English were moving into Nansemond territory as well, lured by the “headright” system that entitled any Englishman to 50 acres for each English person he transported to the new world— with no payment to the Indians who were on the land.

Some of the Nansemonds befriended the English and converted to Christianity, including the chief’s daughter Elizabeth, who married John Bass, an English preacher, in 1638. The contemporary Nansemonds trace their ancestry to them.

About 10 years later, the tribe split. The Nansemonds who were hostile to the English moved fi rst to Sussex and later to Southampton County and eventually faded away. The remaining Nansemonds fled the encroaching English settlement to farm the fringes of the Dismal Swamp, now Chesapeake, and gradually adjust to the English way of life. Some of their descendants still live there, but more have moved into the other cities of Hampton Roads or scattered across the country.

“We were fortunate to be Christianized,” says Bass, who still lives in rural Chesapeake. “We survived.”

The General Assembly, in 1833, allowed qualified Indians to carry papers certifying their Indian/English descent, but the tribe continued their low profile during the days of slavery and segregation.

In 1912 the state appointed its first registrar, rabid white supremacist Dr. Walter Plecker. A eugenics advocate, Plecker drafted and pushed for the 1924 “Racial Integrity Act” that recognized only two races—white and “colored.” He believed that because Virginia Indians had intermarried with other ethnic groups over the years there were no “real” Indians left. Under the new law he ordered that all Indians be classified as “colored” even though many had maintained generations of cultural identity as Indian. Newborns were identified as “colored” or white and intermarriage was outlawed. By altering public records to remove the Indian identity, Plecker effectively wiped out any paper trail of continuous Indian heritage—an obstacle in the Virginia tribes’ later quest for state and then federal recognition.

Plecker retired in 1946 and died a year later in Richmond, run over, some say, by a truck, some say a bus. Towle says that “Every Indian in Virginia was hoping it was an Indian driving.”

Finally, in 1967, the Supreme Court overturned the law.

“The Nansemond tribe was always organized but in a quiet way,” Bond tells us. “The elders met about four times a year to keep the tribe together.” “They went through hard times— you could see the hurt in their eyes,” Bass adds. “During the Depression you couldn’t get work if you were Indian.”

In 1997 Gov. George Allen streamlined the process of correcting birth certificates. By then the Nansemonds had rallied the tribe and, in 1984, under the leadership of chief emeritus Oliver Perry, re-organized as a non-profit organization. In 1985 the tribe received state recognition. A bill to extend federal recognition to the Nansemonds and five other Virginia tribes has passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is pending in the Senate.

In the last 30 years the Nansemonds shed their cloak of quiet. Although parts of their heritage—including their spoken language—are gone, they’ve worked to reclaim and share what they can. Their annual pow-wows draw crowds of spectators, and Nansemonds volunteer to work with community groups and local historical projects.

When Earl Bass’s son’s teacher said there were no Indians in Virginia, Bass and Chief Running Deer visited the school in full regalia to set the record straight. Tribe members continue to give school programs on Indian and Nansemond history.

Bill Gillenwaters, a retired Navy Reserve commander and tribe member from Chesapeake, works with Bright to preserve and teach the skill of fl int knapping, crafting arrowheads and other implements using traditional tools.

“Being part of the tribe means everything to me,” he says. “Gives me a chance to practice my heritage.”

The tribe counts on its next generation to grow into leadership roles. Aaron and Eric Bass were in regalia while they were still in diapers, according to their parents, Earl and Loleta Bass. Now the brothers who were raised on pow-wows both serve on the Nansemond Tribal Council.

Jesse Bass, 28, tribal council member and son of Chief Barry Bass, says that only in the last five or six years has he
really delved into his heritage. “I learned nothing about the Indians in public school, but the history of everybody that’s here now was our history first,” he says. “If it wasn’t for us that first white guy who got off the boat wouldn’t have made it.”

With that in mind Fred Bright, John and I cruise on a friend’s deadrise deckboat down the Nansemond River. Bright is a volunteer consultant to the Crittenden Eclipse Heritage Foundation’s project of creating an environmental and historical map of the river. We land at the island, now privately owned, that was the Nansemond ceremonial grounds attacked by Captain John Smith’s troops.

With the owner’s permission we climb over tree trunks and fight through thick knots of vines and watch Bright’s face light up as he explains that the Nansemonds, isolated in this part of Hampton Roads, were what he calls the “Willie Nelson Outlaws” of Powhatan’s Indians and relatively secure from enemies until the English sailed in and their lives changed forever.

Then, falling quiet, he looks around and says, “I haven’t been here in more than 50 years but the spirit is here. I know my people are still here.”