Pamunkey Reservation, Virginia, 2009
In 2009, my partner Jay Adler and I, rented out our house, sold our cars, bought an RV and hit the road for a year to work on various personal and documentary projects. Jay is a writer and an English professor and he had earned a year-long Sabbatical. I took my own Sabbatical after nearly 30 years of teaching and joined him, though I flew back to LA every six weeks (for two weeks at a time) to teach and help run my photography school, The Julia Dean Photo Workshops.
Our travels were guided by a project on contemporary Native Americans. Jay had been told by a colleague about the Pamunkey Reservation, the oldest reservation in America, so we traveled to Virginia to check it out. We felt honored to be welcomed by the residents. We were there for a week in October of 2009.
Jay started his blog, the sad red earth, on this journey. Here is an exerpt from our visit to the Pamunkey Reservation.
By A. Jay Adler
The Pamunkey Indians were the leading tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy, led by Chief Powhattan, father of Pocahontas, at the time of first contact with English colonists at Jamestown, in 1607. Estimates are that the confederacy then numbered between 14,000-21,000, with the Pamunkey numbering about 1000. Powhatan died in 1618, after which his brother and successor, Opechancanough, attempted in vain to stave off increased English expansion into Powhatan territory. By 1646, as a consequence of war with the colonists and disease, the confederacy was largely destroyed. Many Pamunkey were enslaved to work alongside African slaves and indentured whites. Today, thirty-eight households occupy the oldest Indian reservation in the United States, established by treaty with the English in 1646 and reaffirmed in 1677. Powhatan’s burial mound is still maintained beside the Pamunkey River.
There are approximately 200 tribal members who reside at least part time on remaining reservation land of 1200 acres. Though there is no tribe with a greater documented history of contact with Europeans farther back in time than the Pamunkey – it was the Pamunkey who captured John Smith, who extensively recorded his relations with them – the tribe has had to struggle at great cost, over a million dollars, in its twenty-year effort to gain federal recognition. (The tribe is state recognized by Virginia.) A contributing factor to the difficulties with federal requirements, including established genealogies, is the legacy of white supremacist and eugenics advocate Walter Plecker, Virginia’s first registrar of Bureau of Vital Statistics, who from 1924-1946, on the basis of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act, reclassified, it is believed, thousands of Virginia Indians as “colored,” thus interrupting and obscuring genealogical lines.