Vincent Schilling
Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown feels tribal fishing rights have been denied by the state of Virginia.

Pamunkey and Mattaponi Wrestle With Fishing Rights in Virginia

Vincent Schilling

Tribal fishing rights across Turtle Island are usually protected by state or federal obligations, and at times become the subject of heated discussions on regulating those rights. On April 5, two tribes in Virginia appeared to be denied those tribal rights.

Marine police, acting on behalf of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries traveled to the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Reservations to enforce a 2013 opinion issued by Virginia’s then Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli. (The Pamunkey are currently in the process of becoming the first federally recognized tribe in the state of Virginia.) 

The officers, who came to the territories without permission, threatened tribal members with confiscation of their fishing nets, fishing boats and wrote summons and fines of $500 per fish. “The VMRC and the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries were trying to deny us our treaty rights,” Kevin Brown, chief of the Pamunkey Indians said.

Brown and Chief Mark Custalow, Mattaponi, went to the King William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Matthew R. Kite, complaining that the officers had violated fishing rights outlined in the Articles of Peace Treaty of 1677, an agreement between Prince Charles II, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland and several Indian Kings and Queens, including those of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi.

Kite met with the head of the marine police and local officers. “My understanding is that they were distributing the attorney general's opinion, which came out last summer. The question presented by this opinion was, 'Do Native folks need licenses to go fishing and hunting?' The answer to that question is, No, they don't.”

Kite was clear on the enforceability of the opinion issued by Cuccinelli in 2013. “Attorney General opinions are just that, they are persuasive on what the law might say, but they are not binding like a statute or a court case decision.”


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newworldman's picture
Submitted by newworldman on
I am a member of the neighboring Chichkahominy tribe of Virginia. Our people have been harvesting river herring during their spring spawning runs for centuries, beginning long before the Europeans set foot in "Tsenacommacah" (tidewater Virginia). They caught them, salted them for preservation, and packed them away for year-around consumption, relying on them as an vital staple in their diets. The 1943 construction of the Walker Dam across the Chickahominy River (creating Chickahominy Lake, utilized for providing fresh water for the local burgeoning population) severely restricted the herring spawning run, but people were still able to catch them below the dam and in local creeks.I and my family often visited my grandparents and extended family in Virginia in the '60s, and we would always eat "salted herring" for breakfast -- a traditional meal enjoyed by the regional indigenous people for generations. I have been away for decades, but my cousins there were still participating in catching herring during their spring runs. Unfortunately, American and foreign commercial/industrial fishing boats off the eastern coast, as well as inland commercial fishing ventures, have been harvesting herring by the millions, processing the fish for dog/cat food, fertilizer, fish oil and a host of other capitalist endeavors. It was this insane overfishing by the capitalist, non-native "new guys on the block" that has reduced the herring population to numbers that qualify them for threatened status, subsequently affecting fishing rights long enjoyed by the Virginia tidewater tribes, whose own endeavors never threatened the herring population. Leave it up to the capitalists to ruin it for everyone. If the Indians somehow manage to retain their rights to continue catching these fish, while non-Indians are banned, let's hope that it doesn't devolve into the racial problems that we witnessed in Wisconson in the 1980s over walleye fishing, known as the "walleye war." What a mess this Eurocentric culture is making in our land.