Unrecognized Tribes

I ran across an article online a couple of days ago that piqued my interest. It was a welcome diversion from what has become the usual fare of finger-pointing, name-calling, blame, shame, and incivility. It also made me think of my history – bound in the history of the place I called and still call home.

The article, dated January of 2018, was distributed by the National Park Service. It introduced some tribes of Native Americans as newly state-recognized tribes in the State of Virginia. As I read the list, I saw familiar names like Chickahominy and East Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, Nansemond, and a few that were new to me: Nottoway, Patawomeck, and Monacan. All of these tribes had existed since long before the English had touched land at Jamestown in 1607. They were among the first to encounter the English, trade with them, and teach them to grow new and unfamiliar foodstuffs. There were also struggles and battles. The English pushed to extend the land and resources that they saw as theirs, and the Natives pushed back. And so it went.  

Of note, one of the objectives of the colony was to Christianize the Native Americans.  There were converts, like Pocahontas (of the Powhatan tribe), but many did not. The English used the same tactics on the Native Americans that was used on countless other expeditions: if the opponent wasn’t compliant, they could be compelled – or exterminated. It happened, from both sides.

What surprised me is how little I knew about the tribes that lived near me. In school, I don’t remember reading much about the Native Americans after the pre-Revolutionary period. Maybe there was an occasional mention, but nothing significant enough to remember. Looking back, it is as if they just disappeared. I know now that most of the remaining numbers of each tribe are small, with only two tribes living on their reservations. The others have small villages where they may offer roadside stands where travelers can buy local produce and crafts.  The second thing that surprised me was that the tribes that had lived in the same areas, sometimes for thousands of years, were not officially recognized by the state as existing. How can people be overlooked this way? And what difference does it make?

To answer the second question first, in some states it doesn’t matter a lot. There aren’t a lot of benefits like assistance programs, education aid, and the like. What difference does it make? In many places, it can be the difference between life and death, something most of us don’t spare a moment thinking or worrying about. As for how can people be overlooked, sometimes the answer can be so simple it’s almost laughable. It boils down to economics and privilege. The Haves want to keep what they’ve got and acquire more. The Have Nots have neither the money or the opportunity to push for recognition and assistance. Thus it has been for millennia as it is today.

As Christians, what should be our response to these unrecognized tribes? What about the homeless, the hungry, the children deprived of educational opportunity, the poor, those lacking medical care, those who see no other way to cope other than to end their own lives to stop the pain? Where do they go for help? Perhaps that is the real question.

Jesus gave us some clues we are to pay attention to unless all we have been taught is nothing but nice words. That sounds shocking to me, and it came out of my head. I certainly don’t believe it, but I look around and see a lot of demonstrations of precisely that.  When was the last time I saw something about the people living on shoestrings in Appalachia? How about Native tribes in the Southwest forced to relocate to areas where their usual foods do not grow? How about those same people developing large populations of overweight members with an extremely high rate of diabetes as a result?  How about those who are still trying to repair hurricane damage from years ago? Then there are the veterans living under bridges because they can’t forget what their dedication to this country cost them in terms of what they saw, heard, and did while following the orders of that country. What of them?

Jesus’s “clues” were directed to all Christians. All Christians were and are advised to love one another, to care for the people who needed care.  Historically, those same rules were common to the Jews and before them the Hebrews, who were the roots of Christianity. They were still in the Bible when the English landed at Jamestown, the Spaniards took over Mexico and Florida, the French set up their colonies, and any other “Christian” country used a strong-arm kind of evangelism and privilege.  

Who benefits from obeying the things Jesus told us to do?  Well, it depends. State recognition of Native American tribes may or may not gain them release from any of the problems that plague them now, but acceptance of them as God’s children, in need of help as instructed by Jesus might give them a real sense of what that recognition means. John F. Kennedy said at his inauguration in 1961, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”  That quote inspired a couple of generations to put the welfare of others ahead of their own. Jesus has inspired millions throughout the millennia to do the same. Perhaps we need a revival of those lessons.

The kingdom of God will never come to fruition on earth as long as there are unrecognized tribes, no matter where or what they are.  And who are we Christians to deny others the benefits recognition gives, far more than just physical, economic, and educational benefits?  Who are we to deny their personhood by making them invisible? Is that showing what the kingdom of God is about?

I’m happy Virginia finally recognized the tribes in my home state. I’m glad several of them are now seeking Federal recognition, which will make them more eligible for aid and programs that will help them improve their standard of living. I’m still ashamed of how little I know of these tribes who breathed the same air and in some cases, walked the same ground I did. Right now, though, I think I need to find the unrecognized tribes, Native and Non-Native, that surround me and help them to a better life in the kingdom of God on earth.

God bless.

Image: Smith taketh the King of Paumunkee prisoner.  

Original Author: Robert Vaughan, based on a 1590 engraving by Theodor de Bry and a 1585–1586 watercolor by John White

Created: 1624

Medium: Engraving

Courtesy of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation


Linda Ryan is a co-mentor for an Education for Ministry group, an avid reader, lover of Baroque and Renaissance music, and -retired. She keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter. She is also owned by three cats.

Past Posts