By Caitlin Newman
The question of how Indigenous stories are told—and by whom—is part of a long-overdue reckoning with the mainstream historical narrative in Virginia. From the removal of Confederate statues that promoted the Lost Cause ideology along Richmond’s Monument Avenue to the University of Virginia’s removal of statues celebrating George Rogers Clark’s destruction of Native American towns and that depicted Lewis and Clark’s invaluable Lemhi Shoshone interpreter Sacagawea in a submissive pose, space is now being created for a fuller understanding of history.
For Encyclopedia Virginia (EV), Virginia Humanities’ free online resource about the history and culture of the Commonwealth, this reckoning echoed recurring staff discussions: Whose culture, history, and traditions are accurately reflected on our site? Whose aren’t, and why? How do we engage with communities to rectify this? Driven by these questions, EV staff is working with members of the Virginia Indian community to project their voices, perspectives, and considerable knowledge of Virginia history and culture in a new and revised set of articles. One entry at a time, tribal members are affirming the truth of Native life in Virginia—past and present.
The first substantial entries on Virginia Indian history were published in EV between 2008 and 2012 as part of a larger section on Virginia’s precolonial and colonial history. The entries reflected scholarly consensus at the time but were largely the work of one writer; Virginia tribal communities were not involved in developing the entries. A smaller group of entries focused on nine of Virginia’s eleven federally and state-recognized tribes, but these too favor seventeenth- and eighteenth-century history and were written with little to no input from tribal members.
In recent years, it became evident that EV’s approach followed the same harmful contours as many other cultural institutions, says program director Peter Hedlund. “Virginia Indians were only represented on our site in a precolonial and colonial context, which contributes to the mistaken impression that Indigenous people no longer exist in Virginia. And because the entries were created without the partnership of Virginia’s tribal communities, they’re missing the nuance and fidelity that comes from incorporating a tribal perspective on tribal history and culture,” Hedlund says. “We needed to do better. Working closely with the tribes was the best and only path forward for us, and we hoped that they would be willing to collaborate.”
In 2019, Hedlund reached out to Richmond-based, woman-owned firm Kenah Consulting to help think through how to rebuild EV‘s relationships with Virginia tribes. Kenah means thank you in Powhatan Algonquian, the ancestral language of some Virginia tribes, and the organization is passionate about supporting tribal sovereignty. Kenah worked with the Pamunkey and Chickahominy tribes on their federal acknowledgment efforts (which succeeded in 2015 and 2018, respectively) and has helped Virginia tribes secure $5 million in federal funding for tribal programs.
“Community engagement is hard work. And it’s slow work. There’s a reason for that,” says Lisa Bergstrom, Kenah’s director of cultural heritage and client development. “How do you communicate effectively with people who have not been heard? Why should they trust me, this white woman who wants to talk to them about something?” she asked. “There has to be trust-building before somebody’s going to want to participate in your project. They have to see that this has a benefit for them.”
Kenah’s executive director Ashley Spivey, who is a member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, grew up with a positive collaborative model between a tribal community and non-Native colleagues: her grandfather, Warren Cook, led a joint initiative with archaeologist Errett Callahan to establish the Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center in King William in 1980. “I got to see a collaborative effort, but one that was very much driven by and told from a Native perspective,” she says. But as Spivey pursued an academic career, earning her doctorate in anthropology from the College of William and Mary, she found that model was an exception. “The academy isn’t exactly a service industry,” she notes. “Sometimes outsiders come in without considering how to support tribal communities or to increase tribal sovereignty.”
At Kenah’s recommendation, EV staff began their outreach to Virginia’s recognized tribes with a brief survey to assess whether EV was an effective resource for the Virginia Indian community, whether existing content accurately reflected tribal histories, and what they might like to see from EV in the future. The feedback was humbling but generous. About half of respondents were familiar with the resource, but 75 percent had never used it. Respondents were divided as to whether their own tribal communities were accurately reflected—some tribes, like the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, were hardly mentioned at all. Many spoke about how Native Americans and their stories are erased, misrepresented, or misappropriated in K–12 education and cultural heritage tourism. The majority of those surveyed, however, were open to working with EV as paid contributors to remedy this.
Driven by this input, Kenah helped EV staff design a long-term approach to content development that prioritizes tribal collaboration. The plan includes revising existing entries to incorporate Native voices and perspectives, diversifying media to include more contemporary images of Native culture, and increasing the visibility of Virginia Indians on the EV homepage. While EV plans to work with interested tribes to create entries about the roles Virginia Indians played in all eras, it is prioritizing entries that provide overviews of recognized tribes and recent tribal history. All entries will be written by tribal members or by scholars with a record of positive collaboration with tribal communities.
With a blend of public and private funding, EV and Kenah are putting this new model into practice. In January 2021, they engaged members of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia as paid consultants to develop an entry on their history and culture. The editorial process began with a listening session, during which Spivey guided the four participating tribal members through a discussion of their past and present and ensured that multiple perspectives were considered. “The collaboration process was comfortable,” said Lynette Allston, chief of the Nottoway (Allston is also a Virginia Humanities board member). “Everyone involved was respectful, thoughtful, and attentive to listening. We were able to share our ideas and the direction of what we wanted to say about our history, based on original unaltered documents, oral history, and our perspective,” she says.
A shared vision quickly emerged. For Nottoway tribal member Rick Kelly, who cowrote the entry with André L. Williams, writing for EV was not only an opportunity to share a more accurate, nuanced history of the Nottoway, but also a chance to emphasize the cultural values that are fundamental to their tribal identity. He compares Nottoway culture to an iceberg, with the tribe’s public-facing culture, like its traditional regalia, dances, and songs, as the tip, and its core values existing below the surface. “The things that you don’t see—and that are far greater and far more important—are the things like our passion for education, our closeness to the land, or how we feel about our family members and our elders,” he says.
The group also brainstormed images, audio, video, and primary documents that would support tribal perspectives on tribal history. Beth Roach, a tribal councilperson, public historian, and environ-mentalist, is working with Hedlund to create a 360-degree virtual tour of the Nottoway River in the traditional territory of the historic Nottoway tribe, overlaid with her audio narration. Another new media object—and a first for EV—is a story quilt made by tribal member Denise Walters. “Great Town Imagined” reinterprets surveyor William Byrd’s description of approaching the Nottoway Great Town in 1728. In her quilt, Walters depicts the Nottoway Great Town in summer, at the time of the green corn ceremony, and, unlike Byrd, treats its community members as individuals, each with a distinct and specific life. “I imagined a village alive with people, traditions, stories, songs, dances, and hopes for the future,” writes Walters in a short essay that accompanies the quilt. “It is the people, ękwehę·we, that make the village.”
EV‘s entry on the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia will be published in 2022, and its partnership with the tribe is just getting started. For Williams, there is much to share. “It is our time now as Indigenous people of the Commonwealth to set the record straight and tell our own histories,” he says. “We have made considerable contributions to the Commonwealth, and I believe our stories should be told to let non- Indigenous people know that we are not extinct.”
For her part, Spivey is excited to be shaping another positive example of tribal collaboration. “EV and Virginia Humanities have been a really great example of an institution that takes this seriously and understands the investment and the patience that’s needed in doing that type of work with tribal communities,” she says.
Allston agrees. “It shows growth. It’s what should be happening right now—this evolution, embracing information and people and giving a complete story,” she says. “Finally.”