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In a win for conservation, Nansemond Indian Nation is given back ancestral land

Last week, the Nansemond Indian Nation was given back 504 acres of their ancestral lands in Suffolk County. For the seven federally recognized Tribes in Virginia, getting back ancestral lands for conservation is key to their sovereignty.

History was marked in a quiet ceremony at the Tribal Center overlooking the Nansemond River on a glorious fall day. It was emotional for the Tribe and donors.

"What an amazing day for the Nansemond Tribe," Dominion Energy Tribal Relations Manager Ken Custalow said as he choked up. Custalow is a member of the Chickahominy Indians Eastern Division Tribe and affiliated with the Mattaponi Tribe.
"Congratulations on the return of part of your homelands. This is a great day for you as well as Virginia and the national Native community and for me personally."

Nansemond Chief Keith Anderson remembered elders. "I would be remiss in not acknowledging persons such as the late Charlie Bass, revered citizen of the Nansemond Indian Nation and lifelong steward of the grounds here at Mattanock Town. It’s persons like Charlie who exemplified the meaning of conservation and preservation."

Afterward Chief Anderson talked about this long-awaited moment. "We were the original stewards of these lands," he noted. "We feel privileged every day that we have the opportunity to be on our lands, to breathe the air, to view the wildlife. Something we don’t take lightly. This marks a tremendous point in our history and hopefully there will be many more to come.

"It is really going to be theirs. It’s not going to be on a lease," Helen Roundtree emphasized. Roundtree is a cultural anthropologist and an honorary member of the Nansemond Tribe. "We know that it’s going to be protected indefinitely. A swamp that is really left in peace to be itself and yet the Tribe is able to show how their ancestors used the swamp as hunting and foraging territory and later as a refuge when the English settlers pushed them out."

In 2018, about the same time the Nansemond received federal recognition, a family reached out to Ducks Unlimited about selling forested wetlands known as Cross Swamp. They wanted it conserved. Ducks Unlimited coordinated with Virginia Outdoors Foundation. But instead of the usual state or federal agency getting the land, VOF recommended returning it to the Nansemond. Federally recognized Tribes are sovereign nations with their own governments, including environmental programs funded by the EPA.

"This, for at least our efforts in the Southeast, this is our first time working with a tribal nation which is really cool and really special," said Emily Purcell. Purcell directs conservation programs in the Southeast for Ducks Unlimited. "I think it’s very meaningful conservation."

The land, purchased for $1.1 million included support from the Enviva Forest Conservation Fund, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act grant program, and The Mary Morton Parsons Foundation.

The swamp protects neighboring communities from floodwaters. It provides habitat for ducks, turkey, songbirds, deer as well as the animal featured on the tribal seal.

"My wife was blessed enough to see a baby cub bear standing in the edge of the woods. It’s a good population of bears there. And we’re happy about that," Vice Chief Dave Hennaman said proudly.

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