Nansemond Indian Nation reacquires 500 acres in Suffolk

For the first time in centuries, the Nansemond Indian Nation owns a portion of the land where their ancestors once thrived.

“It’s really history-making,” said Chief Keith Anderson. “This is the first country we have received a clear title and certificate.”

This is not the 70 acres that the Nansemond Indians and the city of Suffolk have been at odds over for more than 20 years. This land in Lone Star Lakes Park is home to Mattanock Town and the Nansemond tribal office. Historical records show that there was a Nansemond village near Mattanock Town in 1608.

Instead, this is Cross Swamp, a nearby property of more than 500 acres of wetlands that has been rededicated by Ducks Unlimited, a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving waterfowl habitats. The property is a listed building and cannot be built on.

Nansemond Indian Nation Chief Keith Anderson signs a partnership statement as Ducks Unlimited Chief Conservation Officer Karen Waldrop looks on during a ceremony in Mattanock Town at Lone Star Park on October 21, 2022.  Ducks Unlimited gave the Nansemond Indians 500 acres of land in Suffolk where the nation's ancestors once thrived.  The organizations will work together to protect wetlands that cannot be developed due to conservation facilitation.

This was an ecstatic homecoming for the Nansemonds, Anderson said – not just to finally take charge of some of their ancestral lands, but to be recognized as equals who deserve a seat at the table.

“We were just treated as human beings and that was such a relief after some of the experiences that our leadership and citizens have had in the past,” Anderson said. “It wasn’t a situation where we felt we had to give in and beg for something from this country.”

The Nansemonds got the land back from a group who had owned it since the 1960s and used it for hunting. As the landowners got older, they wanted to sell the land to someone who would protect it, and that’s where Ducks Unlimited came in.

The Nansemond Indians, once an Algonquin-speaking people, have lived in what is now the Hampton Roads for thousands of years. But their existence was almost wiped out – first by English colonization and then by bureaucracy.

The Racial Integrity Act of 1924 allowed only two designations on birth certificates in Virginia: white or colored. For most of the 20th century, Virginia Indians did not exist by law.

The registrar at the time, Walter Plecker, enforced the law obsessively and subsequently changed many birth certificates. He once admitted in a private letter that he “bluffed a lot, knowing all along that it would never be legally tenable.” In 1943, Plecker sent a list of common tribal surnames to officials across the state and instructed that those with those names should be classified as “Negroes.”

The Virginia General Assembly repealed what remained of the law in 1975 after Loving vs. Virginia declared it unconstitutional in 1967. But even as Virginia attempted to dismantle Plecker’s legacy, the altered and destroyed records made it difficult for the Nansemonds and other Virginia Indians to prove they met the criteria for federal recognition.

It was a catch-22: stealing her legal identity was accomplished primarily through bureaucracy, then the bureaucracy made getting her back almost impossible. The Nansemond Indian Nation only received state recognition in 2018.

The Nansemonds faced a similar problem with acreage at Lone Star Lakes Park, where they spent 20 years building a replica village and education center. The city would not relinquish ownership until the Nansemonds proved their plan was financially viable – but the Nansemonds said they could not get grants and other funding without owning the land.

The nation still has no ownership of that land, Anderson said, although he hopes that will be resolved as soon as next year.

“It hurts a lot to talk about it,” Anderson said. “Regardless of politics, we know our connection to the land and the river. And as long as the tribe exists, we will stand up for what we believe to be right.”

Native Americans dance during the grand entrance dance at the 34th year of the Nansemond Indian Nation's annual Pow Wow in Suffolk, Virginia August 20, 2022. Tribes from Canada to North Carolina participated in the events.

The boundary of the recently acquired property begins less than 10 miles from Mattanock Town, Anderson said, but it has no river access. It’s one of the reasons the Lone Star Lakes Park site is so important: Over 90% of the land providing access to the Nansemond River is privately owned, he said.

“Mattanock Town is a very valuable resource for the tribe,” Anderson said. “We were coastal dwellers and the river was a direct extension of our people.”

However, the new wing is part of the watershed, and the tribe plans to build a small educational center where the Nansemonds will hold seminars and display replica artifacts. They hope to host field trips and other visitors, and above all to be good stewards of the land.

The wetlands not only provide a habitat for wildlife, but also support water quality and are an important buffer against flooding, said Emily Purcell, director of conservation programs for the Southeast at Ducks Unlimited.

“Wetlands are nature’s kidneys,” Purcell said.

This image shows the location of approximately 500 hectares of wetlands in Suffolk donated to the Nansemond Indian Nation by Ducks Unlimited in October 2022.  The land, which is protected and non-cultivable, lies across the river and southeast of Mattanock Town in Lone Star Lakes Park.  The Nansemonds and the City of Suffolk have been fighting to reach an agreement over ownership of 70 acres for more than 20 years.

In most of their acquisitions, Ducks Unlimited acts as an intermediary for long-term public landowners. When the site’s former owners, all in their 80s at the time, first contacted Ducks Unlimited, the conservation group approached the National Wildlife Refuge about the land. It didn’t fit with the Refuge’s takeover plan, so Ducks Unlimited went to the Virginia Outdoor Foundation, which linked them to the Nansemonds.

A grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act covered most of the area’s approximately $1.1 million cost. Dominion Energy also provided a sizeable gift, she added, and the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund and the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation also made contributions.

No costs have been incurred by the Nansemonds, but they are responsible for taxes, administrative costs and the education center. They are seeking grants and other funding to help cover those costs, Anderson said.

“We have been separate, sovereign nations for thousands of years,” Anderson said of the Virginia Indians. But they’ve struggled to gain recognition even in recent years, he said. The recognition obtained through this process is in many ways as significant as the country itself.

“On a global level, there are organizations that say… ‘Let’s go back to the original stewards of this country,'” he said. “And I’m very proud to live now, to be a part of it.”

Katrina Dix, 757-222-5155, [email protected].