Oppression Lives on, Virginia Indians Say Tribes Upset at 'Colonial Mentality'

The Florida Times Union, November 24, 2000 | Go to article overview

Oppression Lives on, Virginia Indians Say Tribes Upset at 'Colonial Mentality'


KING WILLIAM, Va. -- As Americans celebrate a holiday of harmony between colonists and Indians sharing a grateful meal, some descendants of tribal peoples say they are still fighting a "colonial mentality" that is glossed in history books.

In Virginia, where a proposed reservoir project between two reservations is said to threaten Indian archaeological and sacred sites, even attempts to officially commemorate history have revived friction.

Earlier this year, the state angered Indians by designating a planned observance of the 400-year anniversary of Jamestown as "Celebration 2007." Arrival of the English settlers was nothing to celebrate, the Indians said. The complaints prompted the state to remove the word "celebration" from any official references to the event.

"I see 400 years of a legacy of oppression and discrimination," said Chief G. Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Indians, one of the state's eight main tribal groups with 2,700 members. She said the state has "not been able to move past the colonial mentality."

Even before Massachusetts Pilgrim settlers shared their Thanksgiving meal with the Indians, relations between the first permanent English settlers in America and the native people had gotten off to a rocky start. Those first settlers had arrived at a small peninsula along the James River on May 14, 1607. This was Jamestown.

A few weeks later they were attacked by the Powhatan chiefdom, an alliance of about 30 tribes with as many as 13,000 people.

The conflict persisted until 1644, and Virginia's native people have been nearly invisible ever since, said Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, a cultural anthropologist at the College of William and Mary. "The remnant population of the time kept a very low profile," maintaining a subsistence lifestyle almost into the 20th century, she said.

The state's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 tried to legislate Indians out of existence, linking Indians and blacks into a larger non-white culture and barring marriage between whites and non-whites. The act, an effort by Virginia's Southern aristocracy to maintain white supremacy, made it a crime for people to identify themselves as Indian.

Virginia's 17th century policy toward its native people set a tone for the nation's treatment of Indians, said Edward Ragan, a historian and expert on Native American culture at Syracuse University.

Eradication and land grabs were embraced by Virginians George Washington and Thomas Jefferson when they were president, policies that had their origins in Virginia early in the 17th century. …

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