#LandBack After 350 Years for the Rappahannock Tribe

One of the greatest initiatives in play right now for Tribal communities is the grassroots #LandBack movement, with Native citizens and allies advocating for the return of lands wrongfully taken from the tribes. Also helping the cause, the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations established after the Cobell settlement of 2009 provided funding to consolidate fractionated tribal lands and return land ownership to rightful parties. In my region, one group benefiting from the #LandBack movement is the Rappahannock Tribe.

Jerry Fortune, Rappahannock Tribe

After working nearly 100 years for federal recognition that was finally secured in 2018, the Rappahannocks recently celebrated another historic win. This time, it’s the reacquisition of 465 acres of their sacred ancestral homelands, thanks to a partnership with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the Chesapeake Conservancy.

The Rappahannocks lived along the recently reacquired Fones Cliffs in at least three villages —Wecuppom, Matchopick and Pissacoac— before European settlers seized the land some 350 years ago. One of the most important places to the tribe, Fones Cliffs are a four-mile stretch along the eastern side of the Rappahannock River, about 37 miles south of Fredericksburg and about 50 miles from the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. The tribe can trace their history to this area decades before Captain John Smith arrived on their shores in 1607.

“My people have lived here since the beginning,” said Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson. “Rappahannocks would have been able to look down both sides of the river here and see potential enemies or guests coming before they ever got here. And so, this was a very strategic place for them to live, for many reasons.” Now centuries later, they’re looking for artifacts from the three villages once located there. “It’s a race against time, development and climate change.”

Chief Richardson said, “We have worked for many years to restore this sacred place to the Tribe. With eagles being prayer messengers, this area where they gather has always been a place of natural, cultural and spiritual importance.” The tribe plans to build walking trails along the river and a replica of a 16th-century village where tribal members can educate the public about their history.

Native land buyback is no small feat for any tribe. PWNA president & CEO Joshua Arce discusses the complicated process of land buyback to regain possession of land the government previously took from the tribes, often breaking treaties in the process and then giving it to non-Native landowners.

“We just want to be back here,” says Chief Richardson. “And we want our children to be back here and to learn about the cliffs. We’re not trying to take everybody’s land up. We’re not interested in that. We just want our portion. A little equity goes around a long way.” We couldn’t agree more.

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