The history of the Pamunkey Tribe has been recorded by archaeologists, anthropologists, and historians, and dates back 10,000 to 12,000 years. The actual legal status by the white man's criteria does not come into existence until the 1646 and 1677 treaties with the King of England. The two major treaties with the Pamunkey established Articles of Peace and a land base for the Tribe, later referred to as a reservation. Listed as one of the six or more districts inherited by Chief Powhatan, evidence indicates that the Pamunkey district itself was the center among those core districts, and the Pamunkey people were considered to be the most powerful of all the groups within the Powhatan Confederacy. In 1607, Powhatan moved east to Werowocomoco in an effort to aid in the consolidation of his rapidly expanding chiefdom. His three brothers continued to live within the Pamunkey district. The Pamunkey lands have been historically established as a place where Powhatan’s leaders gathered to rest and restore their spirits. After Powhatan’s death in 1618, Pamunkey Indian tradition accords that he was buried in a mound on the Reservation.
The Pamunkey Tribe has been recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia as an Indian Tribe since colonial times. The reservation was confirmed to the Tribe as early as 1658 by the Governor, the Council, and the General Assembly of Virginia. The treaty of 1677 between the King of England, acting through the Governor of Virginia, and several Indian Tribes including the Pamunkey is the most important existing document describing Virginia's relationship towards Indian land.
The Pamunkey Indian Reservation, on the Pamunkey River and adjacent to King William County, Virginia, contains approximately 1,200 acres of land, 500 acres of which is wetlands with numerous creeks. Thirty-four families reside on the reservation and many Tribal members live in nearby Richmond, Newport News, other parts of Virginia, and all over the United States. The Tribe has maintained its own continuing governing body, consisting of a chief and seven council members elected every four years. The Chief and Council perform all tribal governmental functions as set forth by their laws.
Today, the Pamunkey Indians are deeply involved in preserving their surviving culture and natural resources. The Pamunkey Indian Museum was built in 1979, and three documentary videos have been produced. All portray the ways of life and history of the people. To walk through the Museum is to walk through time, beginning with the Ice Age and moving through the natural environment, settlement, and subsistence exhibits.
Much of the surviving Pamunkey culture is indebted to a subsistence lifestyle centered around pottery making, fishing, hunting, and trapping. Fishing, especially shad and herring are an integral part of the Tribe’s economy. Because of the Tribe’s foresight, the Pamunkey River shad runs have remained healthiest of any of the East Coast rivers that are tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay. In recent years, the Pamunkey potters, through their keen appreciation for their long history, have made an effort to revive the wares that were produced before the introduction of the Pottery School. The Museum now houses a display on the pottery tradition of the Tribe, and the Gift Shop adjoining the Museum sells the wares of the current potters.
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