Indigenous efforts for land conservation are growing in Virginia

The Rappahannock Native American Dancers performing at the annual Indigenous Peoples Celebration. Photo courtesy of Virginia Tourism.

Hisham Vohra, Contributing Writer

A newly formed organization known as the Indigenous Conservation Council of the Chesapeake Bay, or ICC, is seeking to build the capacity of federally and state-recognized tribes in the region to protect their ancestral lands.

All of the seven federally recognized tribes in Virginia provide leadership for the ICC on its Board of Directors. These tribes are the Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Nansemond and Monacan, according to ICC member Melissa Ehrenreich. 

“The ICC was created because many of the tribes were starting to have conversations, some for what would be some of the first times in their history, about reacquiring land,” Ehrenreich said.

Ancestral land is connected to cultural identity and its reacquisition for indigenous people is about “reconciliation, repair and healing and that it truly is a human rights issue,” Ehrenreich said.

Six out of seven tribes were granted federal recognition through the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, signed into law in 2018. They are actively developing their governments and advancing sovereignty in creative ways, according to Ehrenreich.

John Pierce is the new environmental programs manager of the Monacan Indian Nation, located in Amherst County.

“We own around 1,400 acres of mostly forested land here,” Pierce said. “We are one of the few tribes east of the Mississippi that still retains land that they would have lived on thousands of years ago. A lot of members of the tribe feel very strongly about protecting that land and seeing it as an heirloom, keeping it moving forward for posterity.”

Pierce said he is concerned about the effects of climate change for the Monacan Nation. 

“We have a lot of elders. We’re definitely specifically concerned about the effects of climate change that have larger effects on agriculture and senior health. Things like extreme weather events such as heat and cold, things like crop failures, pests, invasive diseases,” Pierce said.

Pierce said intertribal support, like the ICC, is beneficial as the tribes continue to improve their environmental efforts.

His work includes inventorying greenhouse gas emissions, waterway remediation to prevent disruption of wildlife activity and potentially growing culturally significant crops in a sustainable manner, he said.

Pierce said he is positive about the relationship between the Monacan Nation and the Virginia government. 

“The Virginia Department of Forestry is very helpful and excited to work with us and work with the other tribes as well. They’ve been really great,” Pierce said. “There’s a lot more communication from the different departments than I was expecting. The Virginia state officials and state bodies do a good job of keeping us in the loop of things.”

Frank Stovall, deputy director for operations at the Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, or DCR, said they work with tribes on a variety of projects. 

“We are currently working collaboratively with multiple stakeholders, including Virginia tribes, on the master plan development process for Machicomoco State Park in Gloucester County, Virginia,” Stovall said.

Machicomoco State Park held an Indigenous Peoples Celebration on Saturday, Nov. 4.

Susan Bulbulkaya, land conservation manager at the DCR, said tribes are having a “significant impact on conservation efforts in Virginia.” 

The Virginia Land Conservation Foundation provides grants for tribes, including $3.45 million for the Chickahominy, $310,000 for the Upper Mattaponi and $500,000 for the Rappahannock, according to Bulbulkaya,. All three of these tribes are located in the Tidewater region of Virginia.

The Mattaponi Indian Tribe, a state-recognized tribe located in King William County, took part in the Resilience Adaptation Feasibility Tool, or RAFT process, which aims to address the challenges faced by coastal communities in Virginia. 

The three other state-recognized tribes are the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Nottoway and Patawomeck.

“The Mattaponi is in hopes to catalyze and support the grassroots of resilience action with potential small grants to revitalize and preserve our river, community, and help sustain our culture and history,” said Mattaponi member Lois Morning Glory Custalow Carter.

Lois Morning Glory Custalow Carter, a member of Mattaponi Tribe. Photo Courtesy of Lois Morning Glory Custalow Carter.

Since before first contact with Europeans, indigenous people have held their land as sacred and respected their environment, according to Carter. 

Carter said she believes that the non-native public can learn from indigenous people on living more sustainably. 

“We as Native Americans need to have a say so in some of this and maybe we can bring back some of the traditional ways of environmental, economic goodness instead of destruction,” Carter said.

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