Nansemonds closer to recognition

Published 10:15 pm Thursday, June 4, 2009

After 12 years of trying, the Nansemond Indian tribe is one step closer to gaining federal recognition.

On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution that would extend federal recognition to the Nansemonds and five other Virginia tribes. The Senate also must approve the measure before it becomes law.

“Naturally, I’m very excited that we finally got through the House,” said Chief Barry Bass. “I’m optimistic that we can get the rest of the way … it’s just long overdue.”

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The Nansemond Indians originally lived along the Nansemond River, and were part of the Powhatan empire. In 1607, the tribe had about 1,200 people, according to a history of the tribe on its Web site,

In 1638, an Englishman named John Bass and a Nansemond convert to Christianity named Elizabeth were married. Later that century, however, the Nansemonds split apart, with the Christian Nansemonds staying on the Nansemond River and the others fleeing southwest to the Nottoway River after warring with the English. In 1806, the last of those Nansemonds died, leaving only the Christian Nansemonds remaining.

In the 1720s, the Nansemonds moved to an area northeast of the Great Dismal Swamp, where game was more plentiful and English settlers fewer, according to the Web site. However, several Nansemond people had to get certificates from Norfolk County clerks saying that they were of Indian and English ancestry and loyal to the English of Virginia.

In the 1830s, when Virginia enacted repressive laws against non-whites, the Nansemonds urged their delegate to have a law passed so that they could be exempt.

In the 1920s, the Nansemonds tried to reorganize, but the effort did not work because of prejudices toward non-whites. However, after the Civil Rights Era, the tribe finally organized and got recognition as a tribe from the state in 1984.

“It’s been a long time,” Bass said. “We’d get stalled out, Congress changes and you have to start over.”

If the Nansemonds become recognized federally, members of the tribe will be eligible for a variety of services provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The services include geographical information, educational partnerships, guidance for self-governance, training and other services.

“If it can get through the Senate, we’ll be good,” Bass said. “A lot of hard work has gone into this acknowledgement.”