Cheroenhaka Indian Tribe Reconnects With Remains of Ancestors Removed by 1960s Archeological Dig

Tidewater News, Thursday, December 1, 2005

Visiting Ancestral Remains Photo Tour

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe of Southampton County recently made history by visiting the skeletal remains of their ancestors at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

The remains of approximately 131 ancestors, dating back to 1580, are from the Hand Site, a late prehistoric Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian site located off Handsom Road in Southampton County.

The site itself dates back to 900 A.D., and was excavated in 1965, ‘66 and ‘69.

“Non-skeletal remains, including items such as pottery and arrowheads are being retained by the Department of Historic Resources (DHR) in Richmond,” explained Chief Walt D. “Red Hawk” Brown III.

“Former director of the Hand Site dig, retired Col. Howard A. MacCord Sr. and Keith Egloff of DHR set up a meeting for us to review the non-skeletal remains as well.”

The visit to the skeletal remains, however, was an emotional moment for the tribal members and their guests.

“Dr. Dorothy Lippert, case officer for the Repatriation Program, extended a formal invitation to the tribe to view the Hand Site skeletal remains,” said Brown.

“This visitation was not only an educational, spirit-filled, ethnohistoric and memorable experience, it was visibly filled with pride, love, honor and respect for the tribal member’s ancestral connections.”

Attending besides Chief Red Hawk were Michael “Grey Owl” Brown, David “Slow Tur-tle” Brown, Tenterian “Sunshine” Taylor, Charleen “Four Roses” Suiter-Hunter, Ethel “Sunceray” Johnson, Nancy “Heart Flower” Turner, Cynthia “Water Lily” Brown, Vice Chief Ellis “Soaring Eagle” Wright, Teresa “Free Spirit” Skeeter, Erika “White Fawn” Wright, Bernice “Running Fern” Brown-Dalton, Angel “Morning Jewel” Kurtz, and guests Anita Moore, at-large member of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Tribal Heritage Foundation; Jay Randolph, assistant Southampton County administrator; and Teresa Preston of the Archaeological Society of Virginia, Nansemond Chapter.

Brown gave a synopsis of the Cheroenhaka tribal history prior to the viewing. He performed a sacred, religious ceremony in honor and respect of the deceased called “smudging.”

Using an abalone shell, he lit a mix of sacred tobacco, sweet grass and sage.

“I let it smoke out, and as the smoke was rising, I went around to everyone who was gathered in a circle,” he said. “With an eagle feather, I wafted the smoke over each one’s head.

“It’s like a blessing of the tribal gathering.”

Preston, an Ivor resident and one of the three non-tribal members who attended, noted that the gathering was very moving.

“It was sobering to think that these bits and pieces of bone were being seen by generations never even imagined,” she said.

“Spirit moved among all present, and each in their own way knew they were a witness to a special moment in time — a day that marked the beginning of the long journey back to Southampton County for the ancestors.”

The Tribe is in the process of negotiating with International Paper (IP) who owns the land on which the Hand Site is located, to acquire the property.

Brown said, “We have been working with Harvey Darden of IP for the last four years, meeting at intervals to discuss the site.

“We have had an on-site walk through the Hand Site with IP, and hope to discuss how we might also acquire the three tracts of land consisting of some 214 acres within and surrounding the Hand Site excavation area.”

Some of the adjacent property along the Nottoway River includes wetlands.

The Cheroenhaka Tribe has retained a non-profit status by establishing the Nottoway Tribal Heritage Foundation Inc., that will provide a vehicle for raising money for educational support to Virginia’s native population.

The Foundation will also provide scholarship support for a four-year college or for technical educational pursuits by Native Americans.

“Our intentions for the property include rededicating the area as the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribal Reservation, building a Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribal Cultural Center and Museum, and Worship Center,” said Brown.

“We also plan to rebuild a facsimile of the late 1580 to early 1600s Hand Site Village with longhouses and a palisade stockade.

“We look forward to serving as stewards and protectors of the Hand Site.”

The tribe plans to petitioned the National Museum of Natural History for the repatriation of the 131 grave remains so that they may be returned to their original resting place at the Hand Site.

However, in order to have this done, present law states the Tribe has to be federally recognized.

“We have submitted a letter of intent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to apply for federal recognition,” said Brown. “All of the correspondence is in place. From our perspective we have a recognized relationship with the state, and packets that include our ethno-historic documents.

“Of all the aboriginal tribes, we are the ones that had the longest contact with the Colonials, however, there are no federally recognized tribes in Virginia, which is atrocious.”

The stateDepartment of Historic Resources has commended International Paper for “exploring options to protect such an important site” and offered their support of this goal.

In a letter to IP, they also state, “although the site is not listed on either the National Register of Historic Places or Virginia Landmarks Register, …it merits such recognition.

“The Hand Site contains intact strata and features that could provide data important to our understanding of trade/mercantile activity, cultural interaction, agricultural life and activities, foodways, mortuary behavior, and material culture/materials science research. Continued land disturbance would impact negatively the research and educational potential of this site.”

Brown said, “We are happy with the support we have received from IP and other organizations.

“The one way I can describe the situation to others is to ask, ‘how would you feel if someone went into your family’s cemetery and moved the bodies of your loved ones to another place?’

“For us to visit and review the remains of our ancestors who walked this earth more than 400 years ago (1580),  was not only a history-making moment for the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe, it was extremely moving — elating, but solemn.

“We just want to return the bones of our ancestors to their rightful resting place.”

Visiting Ancestral Remains Photo Tour