After decades of lobbying Washington, Chief Gene Welford Adkins said many times that he felt federal recognition of the Eastern Chickahominy Indians as a tribe probably wouldn’t happen in his lifetime.
If recognition came, it would mean opportunities for education, housing and health care for his people.
“He said, ‘I’m going to keep on going as long as I can so that future generations [will have them]. I want to get some of these things for my grandchildren,’” said his wife of 53 years, Arnette “Red Wing” Bradley Adkins.
Chief Adkins kept going just long enough. On Jan. 29, President Donald Trump signed H.R. 984, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017. It gives federal recognition not only to the Eastern Chickahominy but also to the Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemond and Monacan tribes, with whom Chief Adkins had collaborated closely.
Chief Adkins was too ill to attend the signing ceremony. He also missed the dedication on April 17 of “Mantle,” a tribute to Virginia Indian Tribes installed on Capitol Square in Richmond.
The 77-year-old Eastern Chickahominy leader, who had suffered from heart and liver issues and was receiving dialysis, died Sunday at home in Providence Forge.
A funeral will be at 2 p.m. Thursday at Tsena Commocko Baptist Church, 2401 Tsena Road in Providence Forge, where he had served devotedly in many positions. Burial will be in the Bradby Family Cemetery in Providence Forge.
“I’m very sad to learn Chief Adkins ... passed away this weekend,” wrote U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., in a statement. “I had the privilege of working with Chief Adkins for many years to secure federal recognition for the Chickahominy, and I’m glad he lived to see his and five other tribes win that battle for justice and respect earlier this year.”
Born at home in New Kent County on Nov. 9, 1940, Chief Adkins was one of three children of a seamstress mother and a father who worked in the prosthetics industry. “He liked to ride his bike. Any [toys] they had, they made them,” his wife said.
He grew up learning the heritage of his ancestors. “His grandfather would get in a canoe and go and fish and bring fish to his family,” she said.
The Eastern Chickahominy are a so-called “landless tribe.” They have no reservation, but members own property that has been passed down in families, as in the Adkins family.
Chief Adkins started his education in a one-room school in New Kent’s Indian community. When the number of students dwindled, that school was closed and the students were bused to Samaria Indian School in Charles City County, where he graduated in 1959. He attended two years of college.
Over the years, he drove a delivery truck for Satterwhite Printing, worked at a Presbyterian bookstore, served in the Army in Tacoma, Wash., and was a signalman for the Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac Railroad before retiring as a laboratory technician for Philip Morris in 1998.
His passion throughout his life was his tribe. He was appointed an assistant chief before serving as chief. He was a charter member of VITAL, the Virginia Indian Tribes Alliance for Life, that gathered the Virginia tribes’ resources in the fight to be recognized. He served on the Virginia Council on Indians. Virginia recognized his tribe in 1983.
“He and members of the tribes would walk the streets of D.C. carrying handouts and signed petitions and try to lobby senators and congressmen. It wasn’t working, and they [eventually] hired a lobbyist,” his wife remembered.
Assistant Eastern Chickahominy Chief Gerald “Jerry” Adkins, whose grandfather was the brother of Chief Adkins’ grandfather, recalled, “There’s no estimate of what it cost finally [to get recognition]. He’d go around and hit us [up] for money. When our goal each month was met, he’d dig into his own pocket.
“There were lots of trips to D.C. The tribe didn’t have the money for him to go and stay and represent us, so he used a lot of his own money. He felt strongly about our heritage.”
In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Tyrone Gene Adkins, and a daughter, Karrie Berry, both of Providence Forge; a brother, Joseph Lester Adkins of Henrico County; and eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.