In April, sacred land in Virginia was returned to the state’s Rappahannock Tribe. In a celebration hosted by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Secretary Deb Haaland stated that the 465 acres were back with the Indigenous group whose ancestors once owned and governed the region.
Haaland made a point to praise the reacquisition as an important moment for relations between the Tribe and local governments looking to ensure the conservation of the land’s natural beauty and impressive levels of biodiversity. “This historic reacquisition underscores how Tribes, private landowners, and other stakeholders all play a central role in this Administration’s work to ensure our conservation efforts are locally-led and support communities’ health and well-being,” the secretary said.
“We look forward to drawing upon Tribal expertise and Indigenous knowledge in helping manage the area’s wildlife and habitat,” Haaland continued. She emphasized how the Rappahannock Tribe’s approach to conservation played a significant role in the decision.
All outdoor spaces free from overdevelopment must be treated with care when considering ownership rights. Still, the agreement between the state and the Tribe should put any concerned environmentalists’ minds at ease. As outlined in the partnership, the Tribe will allow the land to remain free and open to the public as a National Park of sorts, with the Rappahannock people acting as stewards of the area according to the permanent conservation easement.
The land in question is the Fones Cliffs area, which lies on the eastern side of the Rappahannock River and the Rappahannock River Valley Wildlife Refuge. While the Tribe already owns the latter site, the Fones Cliffs are of particular historical significance for the group’s ancestors.
In pre-colonial America, the Rappahannock people populated the region in relative peace.
That harmony ended when John Smith, a settler and military captain from England, engaged in a military conflict with the Indigenous people to control the region. The Fones Cliffs are where the Rappahannock mounted a successful defense against Smith and his men, maintaining control in the area for another 50 years until finally being usurped in the 1660s. Though this reacquisition isn’t a cure-all for the centuries that came in between, it is a starting point for Indigenous relations to move forward.
A major priority for state and Tribal officials is ensuring the stability of the significant yet vulnerable bald eagle population native to the region. According to the Department of the Interior, the Fones Cliffs are home to the country’s largest nesting eagle populations and a sizable amount of migratory eagles.
“With eagles being prayer messengers, this area where they gather has always been a place of natural, cultural, and spiritual importance,” said Rappahannock Tribe Chief Anne Richardson.
The Tribe also has plans for an entire 16th-century-style village. The replica town will educate visitors on the traditional Indigenous approach to land conservation, practices that endured for thousands of years.