From Barter,To Buffer,To Be

Grants  •  Virginia Indians

Exhibit Explores Nottoway of Virginia Indian Life, from Pre-Jamestown to the Present Day

By Jeanne Nicholson Siler

photo by Vincent Schilling

History is being talked about in new ways in Western Tidewater by an increasing number of visitors making their way to tiny Capron, Virginia.

A permanent exhibit developed for the Nottoway Tribe of Virginia Community House and Interpretive Center was supported with a recent VFH grant to the Virginia Nottoway Indian Circle & Square Foundation.

According to Nottoway Chief Lynnette Allston, visitors to the Center have more than doubled since the permanent exhibit opened last year, with figures climbing well above the 2,000 mark.

“Organizations and clubs are holding their business meetings here and then view the exhibit,” notes Allston. “We have groups of educators coming, social studies teachers looking for ways to incorporate new connections to the Standards of Learning. We had an international group of theological educators. One fellow was from Australia, others were from Missouri and Ohio. They are coming to learn about the history of Virginia.”

“What we’re finding is they go to visit Jamestown and then they come to us, even though we are an hour’s drive [from there],” she adds. “I believe they are especially interested in an exhibit that is operated by a Virginia Indian tribe. And, we offer them a chance to have a discussion about history.” Tours at the center are always accompanied by an interpretive guide.

They are especially interested in an exhibit that is operated by a Virginia Indian tribe. – Nottoway chief Lynnette Alston

The center is housed in a building that is more than a century old and was once a Masonic hall. It opened in November 2011. The steadily increasing flow of visitors is fulfilling the early hopes of tribal and community leaders, who envisioned the center as both an educational landmark and a convening place, capable of stimulating tourism and economic activity in this rural Southside Virginia region.

Grants director David Bearinger sees the exhibit as “addressing one of our core VFH interests—in Virginia Indian history and tribal cultures in the present day. It also takes place within and will directly benefit the Western Tidewater region where we are working to develop a stronger presence.”

When the permanent exhibit was unveiled on May 5, 2012 , more than 600 local residents and visitors from around the state met, conversed, and viewed the exhibits on the lower floor of the two-story building and under tents outside. They studied storyboards and artifacts that together address pivotal points in Nottoway Indian history, including cultural heritage traditions such as hunting and fishing, agricultural practices, cosmology, and oral storytelling.

Titled Nottoway Indian History: From Barter … To Buffer … To Be, the exhibit’s storyline is divided into three parts.

photo courtesy the Nottoway Tribe

“From Barter” explains the interaction of the Nottoway with other tribes before and after colonization. “To Buffer” discusses the impact of the actions of the Nottoway and Virginia’s colonial government during the growth of Virginia. “To Be” addresses the evolution of the Nottoway as citizens of Virginia.

The Nottoway are an Iroquoian-speaking tribe whose ancestral home is within the region served by the VFH’s Western Tidewater Regional Council—mainly in what is now Southampton County. Two branches of the Nottoway were formally recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia in 2010, the Nottoway of Virginia being the larger of the two. Both are descended from Iroquoian-speaking peoples—as opposed to the Algonquian-speaking tribes of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom and its tributaries to the north and east, and the Siouan-speaking Monacan, who are native to the Blue Ridge.

Speaking at the exhibit opening last May, Capron mayor Nick Kitchens said, “We have a new gateway to our town that expresses the sentiment of inclusion and offers an educational opportunity to all who visit.” Programs at the Center include classes on beading, native shawl-making, quilting, and flute-making, as well as community “Let’s Talk” sessions on a broad range of topics. These informal discussion sessions may run as long as two hours, with lots of questions and answers.

“We are very intimate,” says Allston. “We rarely have more than twenty or twenty-five in our programs, and sometimes the discussions can get very opinionated.”

History can seem sterile, but when we talk about it, we give it life. – Nottoway chief Lynnette Alston

“History can seem sterile,” she explains, but “when we talk about it, we give it life. Just last Tuesday, the Drewryville Woman’s Club came for a program. They told us, ‘We live right here and this is a whole part of history that we don’t know about.’”

The Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia Community House and Interpretive Center is open to the general public, free of charge, each Saturday from 11:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and by appointment during the week. The center is staffed entirely by community and tribal volunteers.

For more information, see the Center’s website or visit them on Facebook.