Courtesy Bert Wendell Jr. via NMAI
Chief Walter D. “Red Hawk” Brown III, leads the sacred pipe ceremony to celebrate the Cheroenhaka (Nottaway) Indian Tribe's closing on the purchase of a 163-acre tract of tribal land. In the last seven years, the tribe has bought back 263 acres of land in Southampton County, Virginia—part of the 41,000-acre reservation granted to the tribe in 1705 by the Virginia House of Burgesses. Cattashowrock Town, near Courtland, Virginia; April 23, 2016.

Walter D. ‘Red Hawk’ Brown III: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

Dennis Zotigh

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

My name is Walter D. “Red Hawk” Brown, III. I am chief of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe and chairman of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribal Heritage Foundation, Inc. Cheroenhaka—which is pronounced pretty much as it's spelled: Che-ro-en-ha-ka—means People at the Fork of the Stream. It is the true name of the Nottoway Indians. We are a Virginia-state recognized tribe. The foundation is a 501 (C) 3 nonprofit organization created to support the tribe's cultural and educational goals. 

Can you share your Native name and its English translation with us? 

It's Ga-nunt-quare Cheeta, which means Red Hawk. 

Where is your tribal community located?

Our headquarters are in Courtland, Virginia, in Southampton County. 

Where is your tribe originally from?

We're from this same region of southeastern Virginia. We lodged and hunted along the Nottoway, Blackwater, and Chowan rivers. We migrated to Southampton County from Nottoway, in Sussex County—which was originally the southwestern part of Surry County—and from Isle of Wight County. Southampton County was created in 1749 from the southwestern part of Isle of Wight County. 

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

I'd like to share two aspects of our history that are still very relevant today. 

Excavation of the Hand Site in Southampton County carbon dates the ancestors of the Cheroenhaka Tribe in this region to around 1580. On November 2, 2009, a state historical marker commemorating the Hand Site was placed on the corner of General Thomas Highway and Hansom Road in Southampton County. The state notes that the site was “long claimed” by the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe. It is believed that the site was inhabited as early as AD 700. 

Our tribe is currently seeking to have the 132 skeletal remains that were dug up and removed from their resting place at the Hand Site returned and reburied on the 263 acres of ethno-historic tribal land currently owned by the tribe here in Southampton County. The remains were disinterred in 1965, 1966, and 1969 and are now housed in shoeboxes at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C.

The second event I'd like to share begins in 1705, when the Virginia House of Burgesses—which became the House of Delegates in 1776—granted our tribe 41,000 acres of reservation land in what is now Southampton County. The grant was made up the 18,000-acre Circle Tract and the 23,000-acre Square Tract. 

On April 7 and 8, 1728, William Byrd II of Westover Plantation on the James River visited the tribe's Indian Town on the reservation land. Byrd described how the men and women looked, danced, and dressed—including that the women wore the colors red, white, and blue. He also described the nature of the palisade fort, longhouses, and bedding. Byrd noted in his diary that the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) was the only tribe of Indians of any consequence still remaining within the limits of Virginia. 

On August 7, 1735, the Indian interpreters for the Cheroenhaka—Henry Briggs and Thomas Wynn—were dismissed by an Act of the Commonwealth. On the same day the first of many land-transfer deeds for the Circle Tract of land were recorded between the colonials and the Cheroenhaka chief’s men. Transfers would continue up to November 1953, until both the Circle and Square tracts—41,000-acres of reservation lands—were in the hands of European-Americans.

In 2009 and 2016, the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe reclaimed by way of purchase a total of 263 acres of land that was once part of the tribe's 41,000-acre reservation. The first purchase was of 100 acres and the second, 163 acres.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.

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