Rappahannock Indian chief Anne Richardson is used to the stereotypes.
When people hear she is American Indian, they immediately assume her tribe lived in tepees, or hunted buffalo. They assume she spends most of her time in chief regalia. Once, when a a photographer came to take her picture, he was surprised to find her in a business suit and not ceremonial attire.
“I was like, ‘That’s not office attire,’ ” says Miss Richardson, whose full-time job isn’t being chief but serving as executive director of Mattaponi-Pamunkey-Monacan Inc., an organization that provides training services and employment for Virginia Indians.
Many of Miss Richardson’s duties as chief are handled on the weekend. In that role, she serves much like a city’s mayor. She conducts tribal council business or manages affairs of the tribe. She also serves as a mediator during disputes between tribal members and the tribe’s official spokeswoman.
“All of the chiefs have regular jobs,” Miss Richardson says. “We wear jeans and tennis shoes and business suits just like everybody else, depending on where we’re going.
“Our regalia is only worn [for] special occasions and religious ceremonies.”
An oral history project by three senior anthropology students and a professor at the College of William and Mary hopes to break down false perceptions such as these about Virginia Indians and tell the modern-day story of the state’s eight recognized tribes.
“It is going to put the true story about Virginia Indians in the public schools for the first time,” Miss Richardson says, “and to have young minds grasp that and understand that, so they don’t have this false sense of who we are when they become adults.”
The Virginia Council on Indians, William and Mary’s American Indian Resource Center and the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collaborated on the project, which included interviews with Miss Richardson and the chiefs of the state’s seven other tribes: the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Upper Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Nansemond and Monacan.
“My greatest concern is how the history of our people is taught,” Chickahominy Eastern Division Chief Marvin Bradby says during his interview.
To prepare for the project, William and Mary seniors Amy Cadge, Erin Gaffney and Rebecca Costanzo served as Indian interpreters during internships last summer at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. They also were the ones who conducted the interviews with the eight tribal chiefs.
Each chief was asked the same questions. They talked about their responsibilities and what it means to be chief. They discussed what is important to their tribes today and what they want the general public to know about their tribe.
“We wanted them to tell us what they thought was important to them,” says Danielle Moretti-Langholtz, a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at William and Mary. “We’re finding out there is pretty much a suppression of culture due to the 1924 Virginia Racial Integrity Act. They felt it was time to talk about this.”
Passed at the height of the eugenics movement, the state’s Racial Integrity Act established only two racial categories in Virginia: “colored” and “white” and effectively stripped Indians of their property, culture and legal identity.
Most attended an Indian, church-sponsored school until the sixth or seventh grade, but if they wanted to go to high school, they had to attend “colored” schools. Many of the state’s Indians quit school and withdrew from society.
“When people here think about Indians, they think about tepees and horses and buffaloes,” Miss Cadge says. “That’s true about Plains Indians, but on the East Coast it was different.”
Virginia Indians lived in villages along rivers and grew much of their own food in extensive gardens. There were no horses and instead of tepees, the tribes lived in “yehakins,” which were lodges made of woven plant material. They greatly depended on the rivers.
With the record straight and on the books, “we won’t appear in their minds as some obscure culture that used to be,” Miss Richardson says. “We are living, breathing contemporary people that have sustained our culture and preserved it over time.”