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Native American tribe gets back their sacred land after being displaced nearly 400 years ago

Tribal expertise and indigenous knowledge can now be utilized to help manage the area's wildlife and habitat, said Secretary Haaland.

Native American tribe gets back their sacred land after being displaced nearly 400 years ago
WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 29: Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland delivers remarks at an event commemorating the delivery of the Red Road Totem Pole to the Biden Administration on July 29, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Na

Editor's note: This article was originally published on April 4, 2022. It has since been updated.

The Rappahannock Tribe has reacquired 465 acres of sacred land at Fones Cliff, Virginia, in a huge moment for the native tribe. Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet secretary in U.S. history, confirmed the reacquisition in a press release along with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Martha Williams. "We have worked for many years to restore this sacred place to the Tribe," said Rappahannock Tribe Chief Anne Richardson, according to the Chesapeake Conservancy, reported CNN. "With eagles being prayer messengers, this area where they gather has always been a place of natural, cultural, and spiritual importance."


WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 29: Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland takes a photo with guests after speaking during a welcome ceremony for a totem pole carved by the House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation, on the National Mall July 29, 2021, in Washington, DC. The 25-foot totem pole was cut and hand-carved from a 400-year-old Western red cedar tree. The House of Tears Carvers of the Lummi Nation transported the totem pole from Washington State to Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)


Fones Cliffs lie on the eastern side of the Rappahannock River in Virginia and are the ancestral home of the tribe. The lands are located inside the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge and will be accessible to the public. The lands will be placed in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Rappahannock tribes plan to construct a replica of the tribe's 16th-century village and use it to educate the public about their lives. The tribe also plans to expand its "Return to the River" program, which trains Tribal youth in traditional river knowledge and practices. 



"The Department is honored to join the Rappahannock Tribe in co-stewardship of this portion of their ancestral homeland. We look forward to drawing upon Tribal expertise and Indigenous knowledge in helping manage the area's wildlife and habitat," said Secretary Haaland in a statement. "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." Secretary Haaland also met with tribal and community leaders, service employees and conservation organization leaders to discuss the natural and cultural significance of the cliffs. Haaland reiterated the department’s commitment to working with tribal communities and honoring its federal trust responsibility.



Fones Cliffs are sacred land to the tribe and are central to its history. The location was first attacked by English settler Captain John Smith in 1608 but was successfully defended by the Rappahannock Tribe. Captain John Smith would go on to establish the first permanent English settlement in America at Jamestown, Virginia. The English then forcefully displaced the Rappahannock Tribe from their homeland on the Rappahannock River in the 1660s, according to the Chesapeake Conservancy. Fones Cliffs are also home to one of the largest nesting populations of bald eagles on the Atlantic coast, according to the Department of the Interior.


“Relationships, knowledge-sharing, and co-stewardship with indigenous peoples are essential to the Service’s mission,” said Service Director Williams. “We have the direction and tools to ensure collaboration between the Service and Tribes, and to protect cultural, trust and treaty resources on Service lands in support of our shared priority of conserving fish, wildlife and their habitats.”

Tc’ih-Léh-Dûñ, 523 acres of forestland donated to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council. Photo by Max Forster (@maxforsterphotography), courtesy of Save the Redwoods League.


The tribe's reacquisition of its land came about thanks to funds donated by the family of William Dodge Angle to the Chesapeake Conservancy. Additional funding also came from a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through Walmart's Acres for America Program, according to the conservancy. Indigenous people have long been fighting to reclaim their lands and this is yet another important milestone for Native Americans. As we reported earlier this year, more than 500 acres of redwood forestland were returned to Native American tribes whose ancestors were forcibly removed from it generations ago. A conservation group named Save the Redwoods League bought the land formerly known as Andersonia West for $3.55 million before donating it to the InterTribal Sinkyone Wilderness Council. 

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