FREDERICKSBURG, Va. (AP) - With tribal drumbeats and singing in the air, the Rappahannock Tribe joyfully took possession of an acre of ancestral land that leaders hope will reconnect young people with the traditions of their ancestors.
During the ceremony, Rappahannock Chief G. Anne Richardson apologized to former Sen. John Warner- as a representative of the United States and its government- for the blood her ancestors spilled on the land centuries ago.
In addition to the ceremonial blessing of the land and gifts of Indian necklaces and earrings to a host of people who helped make the day possible, Richardson said the formal apology was necessary to rid the land of the stain of violence.
Warner, a former secretary of the Navy who went on to represent Virginia in the U.S. Senate from 1979-2009, was in attendance because the acre on Carter’s Wharf Road near the crossroads of Singerly was purchased and transferred to the tribe by his daughter, Virginia Warner.
Working with the Chesapeake Conservancy, which helped to facilitate the donation, Virginia Warner said she was thrilled that the tribe would use the land for a program called “Return to the River.” It’s an effort to engage tribal youth in the traditions ancestors practiced there for thousands of years: canoeing, fishing, and camping. To help jump-start that program, the Conservancy also donated a canoe to the tribe.
“This is a momentous day for the Rappahannock Tribe. We are very grateful to Ms. Virginia Warner and the Chesapeake Conservancy for making this possible,” said Chief Richardson during the ceremony.
Before the ceremony, she called the property “An important symbol for the tribe, to be able to be back on the land of our ancestors for the first time in more than 350 years.” She noted that it’s vital for the young people of the tribe_which was forcibly moved from the land in the 17th century, settling in and around Essex and King and Queen counties_to get out on the river.
“There, they can commune with nature and begin to understand the migratory paths of fish and fowl that were once a part of life for our people,” she said.
It didn’t take Richardson long to recognize the elephant in the room, a subject on the minds of many at the ceremony. The donated ancestral property is just up the road from Fones Cliffs, a four-mile stretch of white diatomaceous cliffs rising over 100 feet above the Rappahannock River. Members of the tribe using the property would access the river by a public boat landing near the cliffs_important habitat for one of the largest concentration of bald eagles on the East Coast.
In November 2015, the owners of property at Fones Cliffs sought and obtained a rezoning to build a commercial resort and spa there, with more than 700 homes.
Before and during the ceremony, Richardson said the Rappahannock Tribe “continues to support the preservation and protection of Fones Cliffs, one of the most important eagle nesting grounds in all of North America. To have this land be developed as planned would be like putting a curse on the land.”
According to the journals of Captain John Smith, Fones Cliffs was the home of three Native American towns and bore witness to an encounter between the Rappahannock tribe and the Englishmen aboard Captain Smith’s shallop.
This area is also a highlight to those exploring history along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, and to paddlers traversing the Rappahannock.
Chesapeake Conservancy President and CEO Joel Dunn said he was delighted that the group could play a role in the culturally significant land acquisition.
“It’s a small tract of land with huge symbolism for the Rappahannock Tribe,” said Dunn. “The tribe once again has a stake in the land where they lived for hundreds of years before Captain John Smith sailed up the river in 1608.”
Dunn noted that conservation stewardship and helping to provide access to Virginia’s rivers are not just the right things to do, but important economic stimuli, fueling a “thriving outdoor recreation economy” that generates $13.6 billion in consumer spending, provides for 138,000 jobs, $3.9 billion in wages and salaries and $923 million in state and local tax revenue.
John Warner and Virginia Warner, the latter gifted a bowl found on the tract of land and a quartz arrowhead found in the region, said they will stay connected to the battle to protect and preserve all of Fones Cliffs, which they hope will one day be accomplished.
Chuck Hunt, the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Office superintendent, also spoke at Saturday’s ceremony, noting that the donation of land coincided with a recently released report defining the Rappahannock Tribe’s “Indigenous Cultural Landscape.”
Following the ceremony, he said the expectation was that the study of the Rappahannock Tribe’s history in the region would continue.
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