For nearly two centuries, the Chowanoke—an Algonquian people indigenous to northeastern North Carolina—were relegated to history books and considered by some experts to be extinct. Chowanoke descendants recently reorganized as a group though and, significantly, acquired a 146-acre parcel of former reservation land that they hope to use as a base for cultural revitalization effort
Duvonya Chavis, a tribal member, recently gave me a tour of the reclaimed property, meeting me in the deserted streets of Gatesville, the county seat of Gates County, a tucked away corner of North Carolina, before taking me down a country road straddled by swamp waters and cypress trees.
This area—known locally as Indian Neck—all used to be part of an 11,360-acre reservation set aside by colonial authorities in 1677 for the Chowanoke following a war with the colonists. Its remote location provided a refuge for a people that at the time of contact with English explorers in the 16th century were considered the most powerful Algonquian group in North Carolina, with population estimates ranging at several thousand people, and settlements on both sides of the Chowan River, including at Indian Neck, between Cole’s and Bennett’s Creeks.
The Chowanoke feature prominently in the account of Sir Ralph Lane, who led one of the Roanoke colonies in 1585-1586, and kidnapped Skiko, the son of Menatonon, the Chowanoke headman, taking him hostage to Roanoke Island. But subsequent wars, disease epidemics, and colonial encroachment, decimated the tribe and much of the original reservation was sold off during the course of the 18th century. The last 30-acre tract of communally held land was lost by tribal members in 1821, supposedly capping the story of the Chowanoke. But less than two years ago, Chavis, a descendant of the men named on the old tribal land conveyances, and other Chowanoke, purchased back a 146-acre parcel that had once been part of the reservation.
“I strategically wanted land that was right here on Bennett’s Creek, because it was just history,” said Chavis after we arrived on the property. The land is low, and you can feel the moisture in the soil with every step. Part of the parcel has been cleared here, yet there is little apparent to the eye that this used to be the site of a Chowan Indian town. Chowanoke people did live here for generations though and some still live near the site. Some married into the local European and African communities and lost touch with their Indian ancestry. Others, like Chavis, who was raised across the river in nearby Winton, retained their culture.
“I am very sad about what has happened to American Indian people here along the East Coast,” said Chavis. “I really hate it… We now have people who are Indian who do not even know they are really Indian by ancestry, though mentally they are some other race. I am very fortunate that my grandparents and my parents continued to tell us that we were Indian.” She alluded to the efforts of authorities, notably Walter Plecker, the registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics in the early 20th century, to have all Indian people reclassified in official documents as black.
“It is now my passion to get our people reorganized to the point where we start to regrow and repopulate and live the cultural experience that we used to have,” she said.
To accomplish this, the Chowanoke envision creating a cultural and meeting center, as well as nature trails for the benefit of the tribe, other Native Americans, and the community at large.
This is concurrent with the Chowanoke’s efforts to secure state and federal recognition. Though some Chowanoke can trace their ancestry to the men named in the Chowan Indian land conveyances, some were once members of the Meherrin Indian Tribe, headquartered across the Chowan River in Hertford County, which has state but not federal recognition. They have since left that tribe.
By maintaining its own property, Chavis now hopes to reinforce Chowanoke tribal identity among other descendants.
“One of the things that is very important for us as a tribe, is to have that land base because it is historical, and because this is actually the area that was assigned to us after the war in 1676, and I think when you have a reservation, at least the outside community will acknowledge that you are Indian,” Chavis said. “Once that reservation is gone, it’s almost like you have assimilated into society and you are no longer considered Indian. You are no longer called Indian once you lose your land.”
Forest Hazel, a historian who in 2014 published a research paper on the Chowanoke in North Carolina Archaeology, told ICTMN that he believes the acquisition of the land will be a “new beginning” for the Chowanoke, enabling them to hold meetings and ceremonies on land that both traditionally belonged to them and was assigned to them. He also agrees with Chavis, that it could help to reinforce Indian identity, both among descendants and in the eyes of the community.
“It is clear from the historic record that once the Chowanoke lost the last of their land, their non-Indian neighbors quickly relegated them to the category of ‘free people of color’,” said Hazel, who is also the tribal historian for the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation in North Carolina. “To their neighbors, their identity as Native people, as Chowanoke, was tied to their possession of a distinct piece of tribal land. This newly acquired piece of old reservation land should serve as an outward sign of the re-establishment of a Native presence in the Gates County area.”