‘Paper genocide’: Virginia tribal leaders speak on race law’s centennial

Panelists (from left): Gregory Smithers, VCU history professor and moderator; Lou Wratchford, assistant chief, Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe; Wayne Adkins, assistant chief, Chickahominy Indian Tribe; Lynette Allston, chief, Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia; Robert Gray, chief, Pamunkey Indian Tribe. Photo by Kyle Lesko.

Jack Glagola, News Editor

Natalie Collins, Contributing Writer

Leaders of Native American tribes across the state met at the Library of Virginia to host the panel, “The Centennial of the Passage of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924,” on Wednesday, March 20, discussing the law’s impact — past and present — on their communities and how the Native community recovers.

The law passed on March 20, 1924, and mandated that all Virginians must identify their race as either “white” or “colored” and forbade interracial marriage. The law was overturned in 1967 by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia.

The law was pushed by the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America, a white nationalist organization led by Walter Plecker, who also served on the Bureau of Vital Statistics, according to the panel.

Included in the law was the “Pocahontas clause,” which classed those with less than 1/16 of Native blood as “white.”

The panel is the first in a series of accompanying events for the “Indigenous Perspectives” exhibition at the LVA. The exhibition showcases Native art and handiwork in revived traditional styles and methods by current members of Virginia’s Native community.

Lou Wratchford, assistant chief of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, said she used to wonder why her family only went to places where Natives also went until realizing the act’s impacts caused them to retreat inward.

“We got to the point where we could only trust our tribe and the other tribes to treat us fairly,” Wratchford said.

Native schools did not offer all grades at the time, according to Wratchford. She had to go hundreds of miles away to finish high school, and her brother traveled to Oklahoma to complete his education.

Wratchford recalled feeling at home while visiting other tribes because her family was always accepted by them.

“It’s still there today. You don’t find it anywhere else, that level of acceptance,” Wratchford said.

Wratchford said the impacts of the law are still felt today almost 60 years after it was overturned. Some tribes in Virginia were not federally recognized until recently because, under the act, records were destroyed or altered, according to Wratchford.

“However much you gain, there’s always the risk of losing it,” Wratchford said.

Wratchford warned that new laws can always come to take away what Virginia Natives regained.

“I would encourage all of our Virginia tribes to work diligently and together to see that it does not happen again — and if we see any inkling of that — to stand up and be counted,” Wratchford said.

Wratchford described a Virginia Tech student’s discovery of a letter from her grandmother, Molly Adams, to the governor in 1930. She asked the LVA to provide the original to the Upper Mattaponi and keep a copy in the records. The letter also included a drawing of a Native girl lying over top of a man.

“The letter said something to the effect: ‘One of our little Indian girls threw her body on John Smith to save his life, and so we had protected you all these years,’” Wratchford said.

Wratchford described Plecker’s efforts as an attempt at “paper genocide” of Native Americans.

After the panel, Wratchford said she enjoyed the opportunity to share information with people outside the tribe.

“What we talked about tonight, we talk among ourselves all the time. Now we do — we didn’t years ago, but now we do,” Wratchford said. “It’s good to share it with other people.”

Lynette Allston, chief of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, said as a child she was told not to express her Native heritage.

“The Racial Integrity Act, to me, was the culmination of a persistent evolution of trying to deny the identity of Virginia’s Native population,” Allston said.

Allston shared a story of her grandfather — who often said to “not live too high” and stay within the community — asking her at a restaurant if there was poison in the food. It struck Allston that her grandfather lived with fear.

“That’s why he did not want to go beyond his community — that there is a danger, and he knew the danger,” Allston said.

Allston said the Nottoway Tribe is interested in federal recognition, but the process demands a lot of time and money. For now, she wants to focus on educating people as to who the Nottoway are.

“We were left out of the history books,” Allston said. “We have strong documentation from the General Assembly going back through centuries, but we were left out of the history books.”

Allston spoke about an effort by young Nottoway to revitalize their language with the help of a word list collected by Thomas Jefferson.

“From that word list, we’re able to reestablish and develop a working language,” Allston said. “I’ll say again, it’s the young people — I’m not into remembering a new language. I’m grateful for our young folks who are really doing a good job in reestablishing the language.”

Allston emphasized the vital importance of forums to confront the legacy of the state’s Racial Integrity Act and its role in ethnically erasing Indigenous communities from historical narratives.

“People seem not to be interested in what happened before,” Allston said. “And all of what we do in life in layers — things just build on each other.”

Robert Gray, chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, said during the act it was a bad time to be a Virginia Native. Many traveled out of state to marry or work, many settling in Philadelphia — his family included, according to Gray.

“We lost a lot of culture,” Gray said. “It was kind of hard to show the culture because if you showed the culture too much, you’re identifying yourself, and you’re drawing attention to yourself.”

Gray sees the act as the “final nail in the coffin,” citing Jim Crow laws and earlier efforts in the 19th century to take away the Pamunkey reservation because they “weren’t Indian enough.”

“People were hiding their identity,” Gray said. “Over the last few decades we’re coming out of that mode, but we’ve lost a lot and we’re working with all other tribes to bring that culture back.”

Gray said the loss of records hampered efforts to gain federal recognition.

“A lot of that history was lost because the tribes just kind of stayed hunkered down and in hiding, losing some of their cultural activity, losing their people,” Gray said.

Gray said younger Pamunkey are engaging in traditional artwork like pottery and other forms of art and invited attendees to visit a Pamunkey art show at the Brick House.

Wayne Adkins, assistant chief of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, said his family was proud but careful — not hiding or whispering who they were.

Adkins said Walter Plecker, the main advocate for the law, based his view of Virginia Natives on the Natives of the western parts of the country.

“He did one time — in his effort to try to disprove that we were Indians — he came to visit our church one day,” Adkins said. “He sat there, and later on, he reported: He said, ‘I looked around, looked at everybody there, and I only saw one or two people who looked like the western Indians.’ So to him, if you didn’t look like the western Indians, you weren’t Indian.”

Adkins said a lot of birth and census records from the time were inaccurate since many did not know how to read or write.

“People who wrote down their race put down what they wanted,” Adkins said. “Quite often the information that’s in the census is wrong once in a while.”

Adkins said when he applied for federal recognition for the Chickahominy at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1990s, they said they had been waiting for him to do so; in the past, Plecker told the Bureau there were no Natives in Virginia.

“We probably would have been recognized in 1934,” Adkins said. “But because of Plecker’s thinking, that didn’t happen.”

Adkins said all tribes should consider documenting everything they can because one’s life eventually becomes history.

“We’re living history right now, but to us, it’s just living,” Adkins said.

Adkins said he wants people to know who Virginia’s Native community is and that they never went anywhere.

“The history books left us out and that’s one of the reasons why people don’t talk about us, it’s because they don’t know who we are,” Adkins said. “When people don’t talk about us, they don’t know our history, our culture, they don’t even know we still exist!”

Adkins said it is always an honor to talk and educate others about Native history and issues.

“That’s always good to be able to educate some people and let them know something they didn’t know before,” Adkins said.

Gregory Smithers, a history professor at VCU specializing in Native American history, moderated the panel. He stated in an email that the LVA approached him to moderate the panel, and he was “honored” to do it.

Smithers stated it was important for everyone present to understand the legacy of the Racial Integrity Act — especially how it continues to impact the lives of Virginia Natives.

“It’s a reminder of how history is not confined to the long-ago past; it’s woven into our everyday experiences in seen and unseen ways,” Smithers stated.

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