Published 11:22 pm Monday, September 24, 2012
Before there was a city of Suffolk, or even a Nansemond County, there were just the Nansemonds.
The Indian tribe, which numbered about 1,200 in the early 1600s, lived in four villages spread down the banks of the Nansemond River. They formed the southernmost tribe of the Powhatan nation, which dominated Tsenacomoco — their word for what is now called eastern Virginia.
Nobody knows exactly how long humans have occupied the area. The archeological record is practically silent on the Nansemonds.
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Besides a breechcloth, they wore only what clothing they needed to protect themselves from cold or briers. Their villages were spread out, with small gardens interspersed among longhouses. Women did the gardening and gathering of wild nuts and berries, while it was the men’s job to hunt, fish and clear the fields. Both sexes bathed every day in the river.
The people were always on the move, working to survive. Because fields were rarely replanted and the fragile longhouses were frequently rebuilt in new locations, the villages moved to new locations over the course of many decades.
Like all tribes of the Powhatan nation, the Nansemonds spoke the Algonquian language, although with a distinct dialect. The Nansemonds got on well with tribes to the south in what is now called North Carolina. They had their differences, though, with the Nottoways and didn’t care for the Monacans at all.
But all the tribes soon had a reason to unite when the invaders came.
Chief Barry “Big Buck” Bass was elected in 2008 — the chief no longer is predestined by lineage, but chosen by popular election. He yearns to see the tribe gain acceptance on the local and national levels before his time is up.
A 61-year-old direct descendant of a 1638 marriage between the daughter of the Nansemond weroance (head of the tribe) and an Englishman named John Bass, the current chief lives up to his Indian name. Soft-spoken and graceful, his passion is larger than life when it comes to recognition of his people.
“We’re trying to establish our home,” said Bass, an asphalt worker at a plant in Chesapeake. “I want some of our land back. The place has become so special to us.”
The tribe has worked with the city for more than a decade to gain ownership of a parcel of land in Lone Star Lakes Park, where it hopes to build a tribal center, museum, replica village, powwow grounds and more. It would become an educational center for folks to learn about what this place was really like before the intruders.
“It will show what was real, rather than the mess they tell you in the history books,” Bass said. “I want it to be an actual working-type village, not something that’s standing there and you see it once.”
The location is either at or very near the village once called Mattanock. (Bass has a “gut feeling” the actual location was closer to the King’s Highway Bridge site, just to the east.) Called Mattanock Town, the recreation would be as authentic as possible, using natural materials and with gardens that actually grow crops the Nansemonds depended on for survival.
“I don’t want it commercialized,” Bass said.
The tribe also is embroiled in another fight, this one on a national level — the hunt to get recognized by the federal government through an act of Congress.
Such recognition usually takes place through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but that’s not as easy as it seems, Bass said. History and lineage must be documented from Day One, with no lapses. In a culture that didn’t have a written language and later was subjected to unconscionable revisions of history and courthouses set ablaze during the Civil War, that’s a challenge.
The first bits of written history about the Nansemonds do not portray them favorably. After all, history is written by the victors.
Captain John Smith wrote in 1608 that the Indians who attacked the English at Cape Henry were “Nausamd, a proud warlike nation.” Some experts, including Dr. Helen Rountree, believe there is evidence the Indians who participated in the attack were actually the Chesapeakes.
Nonetheless, the attack was avenged upon the Nansemonds the following year. Such began several decades of back-and-forth attacks.
When Christopher Newport explored the river in 1608, people came to the shore and made signs of welcome, according to Rountree’s book “Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries.”
Suspecting a trap, Newport fired into the Indians, killing one and wounding two more. Only after an exchange of hostages and many messages did supposedly friendly trading take place.
Later that same year, an attack by the intruders left canoes, crops and longhouses damaged. With the winter upon them, the Nansemonds gave up four hundred baskets of life-sustaining corn, as well as a chain of pearls and their king’s bows and arrows, just to be left alone.
Around this time, tribes that formerly avoided each other united against the invaders. But it hardly mattered, for more and more aliens were coming every year.
In 1609, Captain John Martin wanted to settle in Nansemond territory and sent negotiators, who never returned. Assuming correctly that the messengers had been killed, the English attacked, but the Nansemond counterattack was so effective that even reinforcements from Jamestown were of no use. Several prisoners were taken and later found dead in Nansemond territory with their mouths stuffed full of bread, a sign of contempt.
In 1611, the unrelenting attacks continued. Sir Thomas Dale burned Nansemond longhouses and cut down growing corn after being attacked.
An area-wide Indian uprising in March 1622 was avenged with the destruction of houses, canoes and corn in Nansemond villages. The next year, another attack left Nansemonds dead.
It seems the Nansemonds had had enough. In the 1630s and early 1640s, they withdrew upriver.
‘I don’t know what you expect’
Chief Bass blames the hostilities on the different cultures and the predilection of the invaders to attack before attempting peaceful contact.
“I think they tried to get along,” Bass said of his ancestors. “I think they tried. But it didn’t work.”
The European concept of ownership of land was just as foreign to the Indians as the invaders themselves. For centuries, Indians had lived under the presumption that the land could not belong to them.
“They said, ‘We’ll just conquer you; we own this,’” Bass said. “Our people didn’t know what that was. You’re here to use it and protect it and maintain it, but you didn’t own it. They had the mentality of, ‘We’ll just take it by force.’”
The Indians fought back because their survival mechanisms — shelter, food, transportation — were being threatened, Bass said.
“I don’t know what you expect,” he said. “Somebody comes and burns your crops and steals your canoes. They had guns. We didn’t have no guns at the time.”
Besides, Bass points out, the invaders never would have survived the first few winters if it hadn’t been for the area Indians.
After the dispersal
In 1638, Englishman John Bass married a Nansemond convert to Christianity named Elizabeth. Most of the Nansemonds surviving today are descended from that marriage.
The “Christianized” Nansemonds stayed on the river until after 1700, when they moved to the northern border of the Great Dismal Swamp. Many descendants, including Chief Bass, still live in that area.
A different faction of the tribe moved southwest to the Blackwater region in the 1660s. This segment, called the Pochay-icks or Pochicks, were living with the Nottoway tribe near what is now the North Carolina border. The affairs of the two tribes became more and more intertwined through the years, and in 1792 the Nansemonds sold their reservation, because so few of them were left. The last of the “reservation Nansemonds” died in 1806.
The “Christianized” segment lived a completely Anglo-American lifestyle, and some were even beginning to prosper materially. An 1834 deed of trust by Joshua Bass lists as collateral 14 wooden chairs, tableware, a loom, two pine tables, assorted farm gear and livestock.
But more trouble loomed ahead for Virginia Indians.
‘They were always fighting’
Whether through ignorant census workers, burning courthouses or racist registrars, it seemed like everything was working against the Indians throughout the next century and a half.
In the early 1800s, a growing sentiment against blacks spilled over onto the Indians, who also were guilty of not having white skin. Free non-whites were required to carry certificates of their free birth or manumission, and the Nansemonds registered as “persons of mixed blood” after objecting to being incorrectly called “Negroes.”
Census workers up until 1930 were essentially free to use their personal opinion in enumerating the persons of various races, so Indians were called by a wide variety of labels. The Nansemond County Courthouse burned in 1865, destroying whatever records there might have been.
A researcher counted about 180 people living in the group north of the Great Dismal Swamp around 1900. They had preserved their tribal name but not their language, and were making their living primarily as truck farmers, sailors, shipyard workers and hunting guides in the swamp.
Things were getting somewhat better for the Nansemonds. Indiana United Methodist Church was set up as a mission for the tribe and still operates today with many Nansemond descendants as members. A school was built in 1889 after the Nansemonds refused to send their children to the black schools and were themselves refused entrance to the white schools. It operated until 1928.
But around 1900, the first signs of legal trouble were also beginning. That was when the members found it necessary to enlist a Portsmouth lawyer to certify them as Indians who associated and married exclusively with whites.
Only a dozen years later came a phenomenon known today as “Pleckerism.”
“Registrar Walter Ashby Plecker personally made many Virginia Indians’ lives miserable for twenty-two years,” Dr. Helen Rountree wrote in her book “Pocahontas’s People.”
Plecker was at the head of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics. One of his first moves was to require birth certificates for all babies born in the state, which seemed reasonable enough.
However, he shortly began his campaign to wipe out the Indian race through those pieces of paper. He instructed county clerks to change the race of Indian babies to black on their birth certificates.
Fortunately for all Virginia Indians, many did not comply. Fortunately for the Nansemonds, the clerk of Norfolk County was one of them. He continued to mark Nansemonds as either Indian or white.
But eventually, Plecker simply began changing the birth certificates once they arrived in Richmond and even retroactively changed birth certificates issued many years earlier by writing on the back that the person was “classified as a colored person.” He also threatened midwives who submitted Indian birth certificates with criminal charges for falsifying official documents.
Plecker also attempted to rewrite the lineage of adult Indians. He managed to have more impact than in 1930 on the 1940 census, which recorded many fewer Indians in most of the relevant counties than had the census just 10 years before. But other records, such as correct Selective Service registrations, make it possible to trace the tribe’s lineage at least to a point, said Lea Dowd, a genealogist and member of the tribe.
“They’re the most traceable tribe there is in Virginia,” she said. “Our ancestors were in court to document who and what they were. They were always fighting to protect their identity and their heritage.”
The present and future
As the tribe prepares to celebrate its 25th annual powwow next year and continue its fights for recognition, Chief Bass is at least glad things have changed since the days of attacks by intruders, forced dispersal, oppressive laws and racist overtones.
But there still is ignorance to be fought. He has run across people who don’t know that Indians still exist in Virginia, and certainly weren’t aware that some tribes still have reservations here.
But he still thinks about the way his ancestors fought to make his life possible, and even how some in his own generation denied their own heritage to avoid enduring the glare of racism.
“I do all this to honor my ancestors, and all the stuff they did to survive,” Bass said. “So many of them went to the grave saying they weren’t Indian because of the way things were.”The author greatly appreciates the contributions of Chief Barry Bass, Dr. Helen C. Rountree and Lea Dowd.