NOTE: The descriptions of the places in this guide were accurate at the time the articles were posted. Please be advised that you should call ahead before traveling to any of them.

Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian Reservations - Virginia's Hidden Heritage

By: Michelle Harper

Indian ReservationWhen envisioning an Indian Reservation, your mind immediately turns westward. However, there are Indian Reservations much closer to home, right here in Virginia. Two such reservations lie virtually hidden from existence less than an hour away from Richmond. The Pamunkey Reservation, located in King William, Virginia and the Mattaponi Reservation, located in West Point, Virginia are small monuments to the once thriving tribes which were represented in the great Powhattan Confederacy that dates back as far as 1600 AD.

During its greatest days, the Powhatan Confederacy consisted of approximately 34 tribes representing more than 10,000 people under the leadership of Chief Powhatan (Pocahontas' father). The Confederacy's territory once spanned the entire coastal plain of Virginia. Today, however, the Mattaponi Reservation presently encompasses only 150 acres with approximately 60 people living in the reservation and Pamunkey Indians now occupy a space smaller than 1,200 acres with approximately 34 families residing there. Over the years, members of both tribes have been dispersed throughout the state and country, leaving the remaining members of the tribes struggling with ways to keep their heritage alive and strong.

Indian Reservation Though only separated by a few miles, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Reservations are as uniquely different as their individual tribal culture. The Pamunkey Reservation consists of mostly an agricultural community as evidenced by their numerous cornfields and scattered houses. Whereas the Mattaponi Reservation consists of houses clustered closer together in more of a community-type setting and their primary focus is on shad fishing instead of farming. Despite the two tribe's many differences, the now silent schoolhouses located on each reservation testify to the common struggle of preserving a way of life in an ever-changing society.

Indian Reservation In order to get a better feel for what life was like in each of the tribes, a visit to the museums located on the reservations is essential. The Pamunkey Indian Museum displays exhibits arranged by time period, allowing for a progressive trip through time in the life of the Pamunkey Indian. The museum is also home to a trading post filled with beautiful pottery made on the reservation. Unfortunately, most of the pottery on display was created by crafters who are now deceased. The Mattoponi Museum utilizes a less formal approach. Many of its artifacts, some dating to 5000 BC, are labeled with handwritten index cards. One of its most famous exhibits is a necklace that once belonged to Pocahontas.

A visit to the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian Reservations is the perfect educational day trip. It will not only provide you with a wonderful sense of the traditional life of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi people, it will also provide a first hand look into lifestyle that is threatening to disappear all together.

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