SUFFOLK, Va. — For the first time in centuries, the Nansemond Indian Nation owns a portion of the land where their ancestors once thrived.
“It is really history making,” said Chief Keith Anderson. “This is the first land that we’ve received clear title and deed.”
This isn’t the 70 acres the Nansemond Indians and the city of Suffolk have argued over for more than 20 years. That land, in Lone Star Lakes Park, is home to Mattanock Town and the Nansemonds’ tribal office. Historical records show there was a Nansemond village close to Mattanock Town in 1608.
Instead, this is Cross Swamp, a nearby parcel of more than 500 acres of wetlands turned over by Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit dedicated to conserving waterfowl habitats. The land is protected by a conservation easement and cannot be developed.
This has been an ecstatic homecoming for the Nansemonds, Anderson said — not just to finally hold stewardship of a portion of their ancestral lands, but to be recognized as equals who deserve a seat at the table.
“We were just treated as human beings, and that was such a relief from some experiences our leadership and citizens have had in the past,” Anderson said. “It was not a situation of feeling that we needed to concede and beg for any of this land.”
The Nansemonds received the land back from a group that had owned it since the 1960s and used it for hunting. As the landowners aged, they wanted to sell the land to someone who would protect it, which is how Ducks Unlimited got involved.
Once an Algonquin-speaking people, the Nansemond Indians have lived in what is now Hampton Roads for thousands of years. But their existence was nearly erased — first by English colonization and then by bureaucracy.
The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 permitted only two designations on birth certificates in Virginia: white or colored. For most of the 20th century, according to the law, Virginia Indians didn’t exist.
Walter Plecker, the state registrar of vital statistics at the time, enforced the law obsessively and retroactively changed many birth certificates. He once admitted in a private letter that he had “been doing a good deal of bluffing, knowing all the while that it could never be legally sustained.” In 1943, Plecker sent a list of common tribal surnames to officials throughout the state, instructing that people with those names be classified as “Negro.”
The Virginia General Assembly repealed what remained of the act in 1975 after Loving vs. Virginia rendered it unconstitutional in 1967. But even as Virginia attempted to dismantle Plecker’s legacy, the altered and destroyed records made it difficult for the Nansemonds and other Virginia Indians to prove they met the criteria for federal recognition.
It was a catch-22: The theft of their legal identity was achieved through bureaucracy in the first place, then bureaucracy made it nearly impossible to get back. The Nansemond Indian Nation didn’t receive federal recognition until 2018.
The Nansemonds have faced a similar issue with acreage in Lone Star Lakes Park where they’ve spent 20 years trying to build a replica village and educational center. The city didn’t want to turn over ownership until the Nansemonds proved their plan was financially viable — but the Nansemonds said they couldn’t secure grants and other funding without owning the land.
The nation still doesn’t have ownership of that land, Anderson said, though he hopes that will be resolved as soon as next year.
“It hurts a lot to talk about it,” Anderson said. “Regardless of the politics of it, we know our attachment to the land and to the river. And as long as the tribe is around we are going to stand up for what we feel is right.”
The border of the recently acquired parcel begins less than 10 miles from Mattanock Town, Anderson said, but it doesn’t have river access. That’s one of the reasons the Lone Star Lakes Park site is important: over 90% of land providing access to the Nansemond River is privately owned, he said.
”Mattanock Town is a very precious resource to the tribe,” Anderson said. “We were coastal people and the river was a direct extension of our people.”
The new tract is part of the watershed, though, and the tribe plans to build a small educational center where the Nansemonds will host seminars and display replica artifacts. They hope to host field trips and other visitors and, most importantly, to be good stewards of the land.
In addition to providing a wildlife habitat, the wetlands also support water quality and are an important buffer against flooding, said Emily Purcell, Ducks Unlimited’s director of conservation programs for the southeast.
“Wetlands are nature’s kidneys,” Purcell said.
For most of their acquisitions, Ducks Unlimited acts as an intermediary for long-term public landholders. When the tract’s former owners, who were all in their 80s at the time, first contacted Ducks Unlimited, the conservation group reached out to the National Wildlife Refuge about the land. It didn’t fit with the refuge’s acquisition plan, so Ducks Unlimited went to the Virginia Outdoor Foundation, which connected them with the Nansemonds.
A North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant covered most of the approximately $1.1 million cost of the tract. Dominion Energy also provided a substantial gift, she added, and the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund and the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation contributed as well.
There was no cost to the Nansemonds, but they are responsible for taxes, administrative costs and the educational center. They are pursuing grants and other funding to cover those costs, Anderson said.
“We have been sovereign nations in our own right for thousands of years,” Anderson said of Virginia Indians. But they’ve struggled to receive recognition even in recent years, he said. The acknowledgment received through this process is in many ways as meaningful as the land itself.
“On a global platform, there are organizations saying … ‘Let’s look back to the original stewards of this land,’ ” he said. “And I’m very proud to be living right now, to be a part of that.”