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Rappahannock Tribe reacquires ancestral Virginia land

The tribe has pledged to care for the extraordinarily rich natural environment of the site, which had been slated for commercial development just a few years ago.

SINGERLY, Va. — Note: The video above is on file from a story about a Gloucester County park. It first aired in 2019.

The Rappahannock Tribe in Virginia has taken ownership of more than 460 acres of ancestral homeland along the river that bears its name, thanks to a groundbreaking partnership with donors, environmentalists and government agencies.

The acquisition, announced Friday by the tribe and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, returns a section of Rappahannock River frontage known as Fones Cliffs to the tribe, which was driven away by English settlers more than 350 years ago and pushed almost to extinction by white supremacists during the 20th century.

The tribe has pledged to care for the extraordinarily rich natural environment of the site, which had been slated for commercial development just a few years ago. Fones Cliffs is a major East Coast nesting place for bald eagles, considered sacred in Rappahannock culture.

“I’m elated about it,” Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson said in an interview before the announcement. “It is special to us because the bones of our ancestors are there.”

The tribe and its partners celebrated the acquisition in an emotional ceremony Friday afternoon, on the shores of the Rappahannock River across from a section of the cliffs. Haaland, the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet, was in tears as she addressed the gathering of several hundred under a white tent in a farm field.

“I whispered over to Chief Anne before this all started and said, ‘I hope I can get through my remarks without crying,’” Haaland said, her voice breaking. “It’s not often that we get to attend such a meaningful celebration,” she added. “Thank you so much for sharing this day with me.”

Haaland praised the tribe for its “unbroken” commitment to the land despite centuries of setbacks. “We’re here today because we recognize the significance of preserving this sacred ground,” she said.

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Fones Cliffs, an unusual outcropping of white diatomaceous earth, is on the east side of the river in Richmond County on the Northern Neck of Virginia. The formation stretches around four miles through pristine marshland and looks over a section of river that narrows from about a mile wide to half that, creating a prime fishing area for scores of eagles.

Three Rappahannock towns were mapped in the area by the English explorer John Smith, who survived an ambush by the tribe at Fones Cliffs in 1608. In recent years, researchers and archaeologists from St. Mary’s College in Maryland have worked with the tribe to document ancestral territory going back thousands of years, including settlements and hunting grounds on both sides of the river and religious artifacts at the cliffs.

Environmentalists hailed the deal, which does not cover the entire length of Fones Cliffs, as a major new approach in preservation by returning land to its native stewards. The “landback” movement has gained momentum in the western United States, including with the 2020 acquisition of nearly 1,200 ancestral acres by the Esselen Tribe in Northern California, but there have been only modest efforts up until now in the east.

And few arrangements have featured such extensive partnerships among private groups, tribes and the federal government as displayed with Fones Cliffs.

“I do think this is unique and precedent-setting,” said Joel Dunn, president and chief executive of the Chesapeake Conservancy, which purchased the site for about $4 million. “There’s something magical happening here,” he said. “It’s a great example of how important inclusion and ownership are to conservation.”

The group was helped by a donation from Charlottesville benefactor Carole Remmer Angle, a former pediatrician known as a leading researcher on the dangers of lead for children. Dunn said he connected with Angle partly through the efforts of musician and environmentalist Dave Matthews and The Wilderness Society, and that Angle was attracted to the project as a way to honor her late husband, William Dodge Angle, who loved waterfowl.

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The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation also contributed to the purchase, through Walmart’s Acres for America program. The Chesapeake Conservancy gave a permanent easement to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and donated the title to the land to the Rappahannock Tribe, which will place it in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“Today really does mark a new direction for conservation, here and nationally, one that acknowledges and corrects this nation’s tragic history of injustices towards Native Americans,” said Jamie Williams, chief executive of the Wilderness Society, which helped arrange the partnership.

The Fish and Wildlife Service controls an adjacent 250 acres, but more than 1,000 acres are privately owned and tied up in a bankruptcy proceeding involving a potential developer. The site that now belongs to the Rappahannock had been planned as an upscale residential community.

Protecting the site is “something that we’d worked toward a long time, and then it just suddenly happened,” Richardson said. “It was amazing to see it all come together.”

The tribe has a small community center nearby but otherwise no territory of its own. Federally recognized in 2018, the Rappahannock now number about 300 but once dominated the fertile land along this stretch of river.

The earliest English settlers, preoccupied with the Powhatan Indians to the south, along the James and York rivers, initially respected Rappahannock territory. But starting in the 1640s, settlers drove the native population away and secured their land for plantations.

By the early 20th century, the eugenics movement and the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 aimed to eliminate the entire classification of Native Americans, declaring that every resident had to be either Black or White. Like other Virginia tribes, the Rappahannock struggled to maintain their cultural identity for generations.

“It was a chapter of history that included centuries-long displacement, marginalization and discrimination,” Dunn said. “We’re turning that around. We’re turning that story of loss into a new story of resilience, restoration, reconnection.”

Richardson, who became the fourth generation in her family to serve as chief when she took over in 1998, said the site will be a historical, cultural and environmental resource for everyone. The priority, she said, will be protecting the site for the eagle population. “We consider them to be messengers from the Creator. We don’t want to do anything to disturb them,” she said.

The tribe plans to develop a system of trails and kiosks so visitors can appreciate the land and its history, Richardson said. And it will build a small replica village of the 16th century to demonstrate and preserve Rappahannock traditions.

That will include expanding a “Return to the River” program that immerses tribal youth in their culture through kayaking and canoeing. “They will be leaders for the future of the tribe,” Richardson said.

It will be a future that emphasizes, as in the past, protecting and conserving the environment. “We were 11,000 years on the river,” Richardson said. “When John Smith came here, he could walk on sturgeon in the water. So that will just tell you the abundance of natural resources that were here due to our conservation methods.”

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