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June 13, 2016

Meet Native America: Walter D. “Red Hawk” Brown, III, Chief of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe and Chairman of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribal Heritage Foundation

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 people today. —Dennis Zotigh


Chief Walter Brown III
Chief Walter D. “Red Hawk” Brown, III, leads the sacred pipe ceremony to celebrate the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) 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. Photo by Bert Wendell, Jr.

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.

Cheroenhaka pipe cermony

Secretary of the Commonwealth of Virginia Kelly Thomasson and Chief Brown shake hands at the sacred pipe ceremony to commemorate the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe's most recent land purchase. Others who took part in the celebration that day include Irvine Wilson (far left) and Rick Meyers (second from left), Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, and Cheroenhaka chief men and other tribal members. Cattashowrock Town, near Courtland, Virginia; April 23, 2016. Photo by Bert Wendell, Jr.


How is your tribal government set up? 

We are governed by a nine-person Tribal Council. 

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system? 

Yes. As a traditional ethno-historic entity of leadership, we have eight "chief men" and one king or chief. 

How often are elected leaders chosen? 

Council members are chosen every four years but may serve consecutive terms. The chief follows a hereditary line and is elected for life. 

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

Our Tribal Council meets once monthly. The tribal membership meets four times per year—once a quarter. 

What responsibilities do you have as chief? 

I am the tribe's spokesman and principal networker, as well as the tribal historian. My explicit duties include serving as chairman of the Tribal Council and chairperson of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribal Heritage Foundation. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe? 

I grew up on our family farm in Southampton County, hunting, trapping, fishing, and tanning hides with my father and learning Cheroenhaka traditions and culture from my mother, father, and grandfather during supper conservations about the history of the tribe. I also spent 28 years on active duty in the U.S. Army and retired as a lieutenant colonel. From my career in the army I was able to glean a host of leadership skills. From the point of view of education, I have B. S. and M.S. degrees. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

My father, Walt “Coon Hunter” Brown, Jr., and mother, Ruth “Cooking Bird” Brown. I would also include my 18 uncles and aunts and the host of leaders I served under during my career in the army. 

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? 

Yes, Queen Edith Turner—whose Native name was Wane Roonseraw—and my great-great-great-great-grandmother Polly Woodson. Polly—who was also known as Mary Turner and whose Native name was Kara Hout—was raised by Queen Edie and Chief Man Alex Rogers. All three are listed on the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian 1808 special census. 

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

We have 425 active, enrolled tribal men, women, and children. 

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?

Our Constitution and Bylaws govern the manner in which a person can become a member of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe. To be enrolled a person must submit to the Tribal Council a paper trail copy of his or her genealogy going back to an ethno-historic Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian surname represented in the 1808 tribal census or found among the names of chief men that appear on land deeds between 1735 and 1953. The applicant must prove the bloodline on the mother's or father's side or both. 

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers? 

Approximately 5 percent of tribal members speak our dar-sun-ke (language or tongue) in part. On July 7, 1820, former President Thomas Jefferson sent a copy of the language's vocabulary and other source materials to Peter Stephen Du Ponceau, a student of Indian languages who lived in Philadelphia. On March 4 of that year, John Wood, a former professor of mathematics at the College of William & Mary, had transcribed the language, working with Queen Edie on the tribe’s reservation in Southampton County. Du Ponceau recognized the language as Iroquoian. It has been described as a mixed dialect of Mohawk, Onondaga, Tuscarora, and Seneca.

To help keep our language alive, we do a word-a-week program for all tribal members, adults and children. We are also in the process of producing a spoken-language CD. 

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Of the 263 acres of land the tribe currently owns, 10 acres are our Powwow Grounds and 2.3 acres are our 17th-century replica Iroquoian palisade village, Cattashowrock Town. We are raising money to build a Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribal Educational Cultural Center and Museum on 3.6 acres. When it is built, we will have a place to display some 3,000 tribal artifacts—points, ceremonial spear points, scrapers, knives, pottery shards and grinders, etc.—all of which have been found on the tribe’s former 41, 000 acres of reservation land. 

What annual events does your tribe sponsor?

We host two powwows every year—a Green Corn Dance on the fourth Saturday in July and the Corn Harvest Dance Powwow and School Days on the second weekend in November. We also have a Primitive Skills Gathering on our tribal land annually in May. 

What other attractions are available for visitors on your land?

The replica 17th-century Iroquoian palisade village Cattashowrock Town includes walking trails with Iroquoian- and English-language signage identifying the flora and fauna on our tribal land. Cattashowrock Town becomes a “living village” on our School Days. 

How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation? 

We strongly believe in sovereignty for all Native nations. In addition, on February 27, 1713, the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe became the last Native nation in the Commonwealth of Virginia to sign a treaty with the Crown of England. Since that treaty was negotiated to include a successor clause and since there has been no act or policy by the U.S. government to supersede it, we still proclaim that the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe is a sovereign nation. 

What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?

This is something I'd like to share with the youth of all our tribes and nations: Remember that we must keep our culture and traditions alive! Learn the history of your people. Practice your traditions and live your culture. Should you still have your tribe’s language, make sure it is taught to those who will follow you. Always tell the story of our people to whoever will listen! 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes. May your walk in this sacred circle of life make better the walk of others—those who will follow in your tracks, your children. 

Thank you. 

Thank you. 

Photos courtesy of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe; used with permission.

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. Meet-native-america
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 


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