Fones Cliffs on the Rappahannock River in Virginia.
(Jeff Allenby/Chesapeake Conservancy)

FEMA now wants to meet with and involve the indigenous population in their calculations. This is a related story.

American Indian political, social and spiritual concepts are interdependent with specific geographic areas. Removing Indigenous people from their land can severely damage the fabric of their culture and effectively turns them into refugees. Reconnecting tribal members with their homeland is key to reinforcing Native identities and preserving tribal lifeways. It took 350 years, but after being forcibly removed from their homeland, controlled by oppressive bureaucracies and damaged by centuries of disruption, bullying and persecution, the Rappahannock people have survived and now own land on the river that bears their name, and there is no one who will protect it better than the tribe. We worked together to accomplish this goal because we understand the deep importance of preserving and protecting these lands for all life. Recent times have seen momentous and long-overdue advances by America’s Indian tribes, no more so than in Virginia. For example, changes to the Code of Virginia during the last General Assembly session now allow Virginia tribes to apply for state funds to acquire and conserve lands and waters to protect important ecological, historical and cultural features, funds that were previously off limits to tribes. Another law enacted in 2022 establishes the Virginia Black, Indigenous, and People of Color Historic Preservation Fund, and tribes are among those who will be able to access state funds to conserve lands that are important to their cultural identity.

Bills in the state legislatures passed with no opposition.

That these bills passed both houses of the General Assembly with no opposition is a remarkable deviation from policies and attitudes of their colonial past. However, just as a new coat of paint can reveal old cracks, Virginia and the sovereign nations it hosts are finding that more work is necessary to ensure that current statutes and policies fit with the modern paradigm of Indigenous-led land conservation. In the interim, partnerships with nonprofit conservation organizations, such as that between the Rappahannock Tribe and the Chesapeake Conservancy, are becoming useful and necessary bridges to help tribes secure access to both public and private funds. The partnership between the Rappahannock Tribe and the Chesapeake Conservancy is deeply rooted in a shared mission of land conservation. We collaborated on many projects over the past decade, including working with St. Mary’s College of Maryland on a project for the National Park Service to define the Indigenous cultural landscape of the Rappahannock River valley and its people in the 17th century and today. In 2017, we celebrated the purchase and donation to the tribe of one acre of land within that landscape, marking the tribe’s symbolic “return to the river.” This event marked an important moment of reflection, respect and reconciliation. These have been the hallmarks of our partnership, and “return to the river” has become both a goal and rallying cry for the tribe. Our collaboration on land conservation has coalesced around an iconic feature on the Rappahannock River called Fones Cliffs, within the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge. This four-mile formation, composed of clay and diatomaceous earth, has been a conservation priority of the tribe, the Chesapeake Conservancy, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service and many other conservation partners because of the concentration of ecological, cultural and historic resources found there. The bluffs supported three Rappahannock towns that were mapped by Captain John Smith in 1608. The miles-long vistas enabled Rappahannock warriors to take stock of approaching watercraft, and the bluffs are a magnet for breeding, migrating and wintering bald eagles. In April, we gathered with tribal citizens and partners from around the Chesapeake, including the Wilderness Society and Rappahannock Wildlife Refuge Friends, to mark a second and much grander “return to the river,” this one conveying 465 acres of riverfront land at Fones Cliffs to the tribe. The tribe has restored the name “Pissacoak” to the land. It is Phase 1 of a two-phase project to return nearly 1,200 acres to tribal ownership and stewardship. Phase 1 was made possible through generous donations from the family of William Dodge Angle, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through Walmart’s Acres for America program and the Morris family, who sold the land to the Chesapeake Conservancy specifically for the purpose of returning it to the Rappahannock Tribe. As we worked to complete Phase 1, and now are seeking partners to complete Phase 2, we find ourselves continuing to navigate previously untrod territory.

Most of the land involved involves the state, the Federal government and the tribes.

The primary issues revolve around the intersection of tribal, federal and state sovereignty; the federal Indian trust doctrine administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and the rules governing conservation easements as expressed in state and federal codes. Without going into great legal detail, suffice it to say that wrestling these issues to the ground for Phase 1 took months. Now, as the tribe seeks to avail itself of opportunities to apply for state conservation funds for the first time, we find that these same issues must be reconciled to fit within state requirements. For example, we find that the federal government is not listed as “holder” of easements as defined in state code, nor as a “public body” authorized to hold easements. If the federal government were, it would have alleviated at least one of the hurdles we are facing.

With seven nations in the state, Virginia is well placed to do this collaboration.

Fortunately, there is recognition by the commonwealth that having seven sovereign nations within its borders requires a new look at state code. To that end, the General Assembly created the Commission on Updating Virginia Law to Reflect Federal Recognition of Virginia Tribes. With representation from each of Virginia’s seven federally recognized tribes, the commission is poised to take a serious and thorough review of state code and recommend appropriate amendments. Virginia tribes also recognize the need for increased understanding, collaboration and coordination. On Sept. 15, the Rappahannock Tribe is hosting the second Sovereign Nations of Virginia Conference: Indigenous Led Conservation in Richmond. Featured speakers, including the authors of this essay, will “share critical information needed to build relationships, understanding, and common ground between Tribes and agencies to better the future for our Virginia Tribal communities and all Virginians.” This includes the suggestion to consider the formation of an intertribal conservation council in the Chesapeake, to share knowledge and ensure tribal priorities are considered by the larger restoration movement. The tribes plan follow-up workshops to forge new relationships within the large and growing community of those who want to know more about traditional conservation principles. As tribes and state and federal governments strive to reconcile the past and forge a new future for Indigenous-led conservation, partnerships with conservation organizations will remain a critical piece of the puzzle.

This might be a model for the environmental groups around the Gulf.

Indigenous-led conservation
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