Recognized at last

Published 5:55 pm Thursday, March 15, 2018

Story by Phyllis Speidell

Photos by John Sheally II

HR984 created little news buzz outside Virginia when President Donald Trump signed it on Jan. 28, 2018, but to six American Indian tribes, it had immeasurable impact.

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The bill granted federal recognition to half a dozen Indian tribes in Virginia, including the Nansemond Indians, Hampton Roads’ only surviving indigenous tribe.

“Never did I think I would see this in my lifetime,” Earl Bass, Nansemond chief emeritus, said. “When I heard the news, I was jumping up and down with excitement, and I was home alone”

Bass, 63, is a descendant of the Nansemonds who were among the first Indians to meet Capt. John Smith and the Jamestown settlers in the early 1600s.

“I never thought this would happen,” said Fred Bright, 79, a former treasurer of the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association who also traces his ancestry to those early Indians. For years, Bright worked with Bass and Barry Bass, another former Nansemond chief, to persuade the Bureau of Indian Affairs — and later Virginia legislators — that the Nansemonds deserved federal recognition.

It is a recognition delayed by 400-plus years, according to the current Nansemond Chief Lee Lockamy.

Former Chief Barry Bass looks over the Nansemond River from Mattanock Town.

What does federal recognition mean? The tribe is still waiting for specific answers from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, information they hope to glean from an upcoming meeting with the Bureau’s senior regional director for the Eastern Region.

“Right now, we don’t know quite where this is going, but I know there will be paperwork this high,” Lockamy said, holding his hand at his shoulder.

“We haven’t digested the whole federal recognition yet,” Earl Bass agreed. “We know the benefits start as of the date of the signing, but as of now but we don’t know for sure what those benefits are.”

They do know that gambling casinos are not part of the future — and to the Nansemonds, that is not a loss.

“There is a no-gaming clause in the bill — even if the state of Virginia approves gambling, “Bass said. “We have signed away our rights to gambling to get federal recognition.”

The news did bring the tribe, about 300 members nationwide, a startling increase in requests for new as well as re-instated memberships.

“We had to buy a new membership card machine,” Bass said.
Aspiring members are required to present a documented genealogy to the tribe to validate their eligibility.

The renewed desire to claim Indian ancestry is a contrast to the early 20th-century era, when Dr. Walter Plecker reigned as the first registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, serving from 1912 to 1946. A eugenicist and advocate of white supremacy, Plecker pushed for passage of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 that made interracial marriage a crime and required birth certificates to have only “White” and “Colored” designations. Rumor also had it that Plecker altered existing birth certificates, eliminating any reference to “Indian” because, he believed, there were no “true” Indians left in Virginia.

The long-term effect of altering birth records, often referred to as “clerical genocide,” greatly hampered the Indians’ quest to document their lineage using official records.

Many Indian parents of that era, fearing reprisals, instructed their children never to mention their ancestry. Bright said that his grandmother “went to her grave saying there were no Indians in our family.”

Bass and his older brother, Sam Bass, the assistant chief, remember their parents, Albert and Gertrude Bass, talking about their Indian heritage to their eight children, but never outside the home.

In 1984, however, when Norfolk native Oliver Perry, called a meeting to re-establish the Nansemond Tribe, Albert and Gertrude were among the 61 attendees. Perry had devoted his retirement from the military and civil service to researching his Nansemond roots and was a leader in the tribe’s reorganization. Perry, along with the Basses, Brights and other Nansemond families, worked with several volunteer consultants including Helen Rountree, noted Old Dominion University professor emerita of anthropology, toward the 1985 recognition of the tribe by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Earl and Sam Bass grew up in Portsmouth, as did Bright. Now Earl Bass lives in South Mills, Sam Bass in Suffolk and Bright in Portsmouth. Lockamy lives in Virginia Beach and, like the others, travels to Suffolk’s Lone Star Lakes for tribal meetings at Mattanock Town.

Mattanock Town, at the tribe’s Suffolk riverfront pow-wow site, is a dream more than a decade in the making to create an authentic early 17th-century Indian village to serve as an educational destination and cultural center. In 2013, the city offered the tribe the site of about 70 acres — with the stipulation that the project would become viable within five years or the land forfeited. To date, the tribe has financed the project and built several authentic longhouses and trails with the help of local Boy Scouts and other community volunteers.

Among the discussions at the tribal councils at Mattanock Town this year will be the news that the Nansemonds are the first tribe to join the Sons of the American Revolution. The national lineage society requires each of its 35,000-plus members prove their descent from an ancestor who supported the cause of American independence during the years 1775 to 1783.

Earl and Sam Bass, as well as tribe member Tom Badamo from Long Island, and numerous other Nansemonds can track their ancestry to William Bass, their great-grandfather’s great-grandfather, who appears on the 1772 tax rolls as of English and Nansemond descent.

According to Michael J. Elston, national trustee and president of the Virginia Sons of the American Revolution, the SAR’s executive committee has approved a prospective chapter based with the Nansemond Tribe. The tribe has already found the requisite number of members and, upon approval, Elston said, the Nansemond Indian Chapter would be the first majority Native American chapter in the SAR.