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One year into a new health clinic, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe is expanding and buying back lands

It took two years for the Bureau of Indian Affairs to accept nearly 30 acres into trust. But that means it will be governed by tribal laws and not the state.

"Things are changing," Upper Mattaponi Chief Frank Adams notes. "So we’re trying to move fast enough to save our cultural properties before our history and our heritage is destroyed."

The Mattaponi once lived on lands along the river that shares their name. "The government granted us this property to be ours and then the next year they would say, 'Well, we’re going to take 100 acres here and then you still got enough, and then we’re going to take another 100 here and well you still got enough.' Until they took it all," Adams explains.

The Tribe plans to put more lands into trust, but these two parcels were at the top of their list. Located on opposite sides of a road in King William, about a half-hour from Richmond, it’s where the Tribe has its government center, pow-wow grounds and the historic Sharon Indian School.

"Because of the road that splits the two of them, we wanted to make sure they wouldn’t come in and use the power of eminent domain to take property to widen the road or any other thing that might happen since we’re living on a busy highway."

The school was built by the Tribe when segregation was part of Virginia law. "I went to the Sharon Indian School myself through the sixth grade," Adams remembers. "My mother went, my father went, my grandmother went. Everybody in the Upper Mattaponi Tribe has a connection to that school because somebody in their family went there for some amount of time."

Federal recognition has another benefit for tribes in Virginia – support for economic development and during the pandemic, CARES Act funds. So, one year ago, just five miles away, the Tribe opened a health clinic.

Dr. James Towe and Nurse Practitioner Raven Custalow
Pamela D'Angelo
Dr. James Towe and Nurse Practitioner Raven Custalow

"We purchased an abandoned doctor’s office and completely renovated it. Hired and interviewed doctors and nurses and what not and got it open during the pandemic, which was pretty amazing," according to Adams.

And it’s not just for tribal citizens. "It’s kind of a doctor desert down here so we treat the whole community, anyone that comes. They can call and make an appointment."

They hired a non-Native doctor from Northern Virginia and a tribal member who is a nurse practitioner. The team hit the ground running, navigating the pandemic last year. "We were going to give COVID shots but you have to keep them super cold and this and that, so just ordering the freezers and during the supply shortage and the pandemic we were hustling around but we got it done," he notes.

The Tribe expanded services with home health care and is hiring another doctor, nurse practitioner and staff. And, along with buying more lands, the Tribe is making plans to open more clinics in the state.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.