Spotlight on the Nansemond
Published 6:30 pm Thursday, February 20, 2020
The Nansemond Indian Nation was the focus of the latest “Afternoon Conversations” session, which was held Feb. 12 at the Phillips-Dawson House in downtown Suffolk, the headquarters of the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society.
Afternoon Conversations is a series of talks that are held monthly at the Phillips-Dawson House as a collaboration between Suffolk Public Library and the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society.
There were about two dozen attendees for the Feb. 12 presentation that was led by Nansemond Chief Sam Bass. Suffolk Public Library Operations and Outreach Assistant Thomas Farrar said it was an “amazing” turnout for an Afternoon Conversations session.
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“This is definitely the highest turnout that we’ve had probably in the past year,” Farrar said. “I think the fact that we had so many people show up really tells you how interested people are in this topic, and how little maybe people know about it.”
Chief Bass wore traditional Native American attire for the presentation. He was joined by his son, Brian Bass, and other Nansemond Indian Nation representatives to discuss the history of their tribe, receiving federal recognition, their ongoing partnership with the city of Suffolk, and their annual events that draw people to their Mattanock Town site.
The Nansemond are the indigenous people of the Nansemond River, a 20-mile long tributary of the James River. The Nansemond Tribe was part of the Tsenacomoco, or Powhatan paramount chiefdom. This was a coalition of about 30 Algonquin Indian tribes throughout the northern, southern and western territories that surround the Chesapeake Bay.
The Nansemond lived in settlements on both sides of the Nansemond River, where they harvested oysters, hunted, farmed and fished. The name “Nansemond” actually means “fishing point,” according to the website.
In the early 1600s, the English arrived in Powhatan territory, and several decades of violent conflict followed. The Powhatan Wars lasted from 1610 to 1646, during which the English displaced the Nansemond from their ancestral land.
This upheaval created a schism in the Nansemond tribal community. According to the Nansemond website, some Nansemond families assimilated to an English lifestyle, while others adhered to a more traditional way of life.
“In 1638, John Bass, an English minister, married Elizabeth, the daughter of a Nansemond chief, in a union that would mark the beginning of a small segment of our tribe’s migration from the Nansemond River toward the northern border of the Great Dismal Swamp,” nansemond.org states, while other segments aligned with neighboring tribes to resist assimilation.
According to the website, the Nansemond were signatories to the Treaty of 1677 with the King of England, which granted reservation land to tributary tribes.
The website states that Norfolk County granted a William Bass and his kinsmen use of swamp land in 1727 based on their Nansemond ancestry, and in 1742 the county issued a certificate of Nansemond descent to a William Bass.
The Nansemond community that remained in Norfolk County “was frequently documented by the local government,” the website states, and in 1797 the county issued a certificate stating that “William Bass was of Indian and English descent.”
It was around 1850 that the Indiana Methodist Church was established for the small Nansemond community in Norfolk County. This was built on land owned by the Bass family, and the same location was later used to establish a public school for Nansemond children in the 1890s, according to the website.
The Nansemond formally organized with elected officers in 1984, received Virginia state recognition in 1985, and were recognized federally more than three decades later.
The “Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017” was signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018. The bill extended federal recognition to the Nansemond Indian Tribe, as well as the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Monacan tribes.
“In honor of this turning point we have returned to the name used by our ancestors—the Nansemond Indian Nation,” nansemond.org states.
The Nansemond Indian Nation has established partnerships with community organizations and the city of Suffolk itself, and Chief Bass said during the presentation that negotiations have been “positive” with the city regarding their agreement on the Mattanock Town property, the Nansemond’s authentic Indian village project near Chuckatuck.
“They don’t say no to us when we’re trying to do things in the community, so that’s a big thank you to the city of Suffolk for that,” Bass said.
The Nansemond Indian Nation is working to meet the stipulations of their agreement with the city to acquire the property permanently, which will allow them to pursue grants for projects, Bass said.
“I feel that we will eventually reach some type of agreement with the city,” he said.
Mattanock Town is a 70-plus-acre site named after one of their ancestors’ historic villages located along the Nansemond River. It’s intended to become a Native American tourist attraction, with nature trails, a tribal center and more.
It has been a popular site for Scouts and other community organizations, and different, exciting events draw people to Mattanock Town each year.
The Nansemond Indian Powwow has been an annual tradition for the Nansemond Indian Nation for more than 30 years. Attendees enjoy ceremonies with traditional Native American song, dance and dress, plus delicious food, vendors and other activities. The festival will return on Aug. 15-16 this year.
The annual Nansemond Firebird Festival was first held last year and offered fun educational experiences for both children and adults, with stations that taught visitors different words in the Algonquin language, artifacts and other activities.
The second annual Nansemond Firebird Festival will be held on April 8-9, with fourth-graders from Suffolk Public Schools attending on those dates. It will then be open to the public on April 11.
“It’s an educational outreach experience that allows us to teach the community at large about our culture,” Jamillah Silver, chairperson of the Nansemond Firebird Festival, said at the talk.
Both events are examples of Nansemond Indian Nation’s outreach to the Suffolk community.
“Now that we’re a nation, we want to start reaching out more and helping out in the community,” Chief Bass said.
Visit nansemond.org for more information on the Nansemond Indian Nation, and visit suffolkpubliclibrary.org for more upcoming Suffolk Public Library activities.