Virginia’s Incomplete Family History

Rev. Crystal Sygeel wrote a moving op/ed which was published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on July 23, 2010 about her Native American roots and the current struggle of Virginia’s tribes to get federal recognition.

The only surviving photo I have of my great-great-grandmother, on my mother’s side, hangs in my parents’ house. She was a Native American. In the aging photo she stands next to her white husband on a windy hillside, her long braids slightly lifted in the wind.

Very little has been passed down through the oral history of our family about this woman. I understand that her presence in the family was awkward at best and avoided when possible. Despite this awkwardness she raised several children whose children’s children raise families of their own. However, in comparison to my Euro-American ancestors, her life stories are all but unknown. Amid the wealth of blessings and lessons passed through the generations of my family, I have no way of knowing which gifts can be traced to her.

The lack of information and prevalence of whispers in our oral history suggest my mostly white family struggled to incorporate my great-great-grandmother authentically. Their lack of pride must have created a disparaging environment that sought to hide the truth or remake the reality that a neighbor could be Native American. I count this lack of recognition as a loss on all fronts — to them, to the family then and now, and today to my own sense of personal identity.

I sense a similar loss to Virginia and the United States in the federal government’s inability to recognize the Native American tribes of the commonwealth. We know they exist but our government refuses to recognize them as valid. We continue a lack of understanding of ourselves and a history of sometimes tense and sometimes peaceful co-existence across the centuries. We hide the truth that our settling ancestors shared trade and agriculture, and embodied the earliest glimpse of the melting pot our country would eventually become. We enjoy the fruits of our historical relationship without acknowledging the native people who taught us how to grow the very roots of democracy.

This year the Library of Virginia recognized eight women who made outstanding contributions to their communities. Mollie Wade Holmes Adams of the Upper Mattaponi was among the honorees. The Library of Virginia had this to say about her:

Raising her twelve children, Adams faced the bigotry of Walter A. Plecker’s management of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics. Plecker systematically worked to reclassify all Virginia Indians as “Negro” or “colored” and therefore relegate them to the same racist laws to which African-Americans were subject. In a counter move to Plecker’s claims against the Indians, several white men signed a statement certifying Adams’s Indian ancestry.

Despite this adversity, Adams was a tribal elder and passed on the almost-lost skill of feather weaving. She aided anthropologists by allowing her picture to be published in one study and by explaining her herbal remedies to researchers. Adams built a strong base for the modern Upper Mattaponi through her church and tribal activism. Her son Andrew Washington Adams was chief of the Upper Mattaponi from 1974 to 1985, and her grandson, Kenneth Adams, is the current chief.

In Mollie Wade Holmes Adams we see the contributions of a mother, activist, professional collaborator, naturopath, and civic leader. While her story is powerful, it is not unique. In her story we find recurring themes that reflect the collective legacy of the tribes: peaceful relationships maintained since the treaty of 1607, ongoing military service, and numerous societal contributions. Like my peoples, the contributions of the Chickahominy, the Chickahominy Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan, and the Nansemond continue to be hidden away as long as the tribes are not recognized by our federal government. It’s as if they don’t exist; distant relations whose stories we fail to see as part of our own.

With a long-overdue act of Congress, we have an opportunity to grant recognition of these Virginia tribes. In doing so we ensure them the kind of help and support — the kind of dignity — that was denied my great-great-grandmother. It is the dignity of recognition.

In my family that spans two continents I have gone in search of my ancestor in order that our family’s story might be more complete. Imagine what it would mean for our story as the commonwealth, and the United States as a whole, if we sought to recognize the 3,398 members of the tribes of Virginia and their ancestors. On our nation’s mantel is an empty frame representing an incomplete history and all of the blessings it portends. It is time that we finally expose the family portrait.

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