The front room was where the tribal council met. The backroom was for Indian school, where children learned the old ways. Susie and Otha Nelson lived here beginning in the 1920s, waging a lifelong fight for the survival of their people, the Rappahannock Tribe.
Today, their granddaughter carries on, and generations of persistence are beginning to pay off. Earlier this year, the Rappahannocks were among a handful of Virginia tribes who finally achieved federal recognition under a bill passed by Congress and signed by the president.
Now, discoveries are helping the tribe reclaim something that had seemed irretrievably lost: its history.
Recent archaeological work, driven by 2018 data analytics, has unearthed evidence of the Rappahannock Tribe’s vast range along the river that bears its name. The findings suggest the Rappahannocks were a powerful tribe with equal standing to others that got more attention from European settlers.
The emerging story undercuts what Western historians have asserted for 400 years about the shape of native culture when the Europeans arrived in America, and it restores the place of the Rappahannocks, who had nearly been erased from the record.
“There were voices that the Rappahannock needed to have that they weren’t getting,” said archaeologist Julia King of St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who has led the effort.