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November 25, 2011

American Indian Heritage & StoryCorps 2011: One Woman's Family Story

Phoebe Mills Farris is the arts editor for Cultural Survival Quarterly and professor emeritus of art and design and women's studies at Purdue University. She is also the curator of and a participating artist in the U.S. Department of State's traveling exhibit Visual Power: 21st Century Native American Artists/Intellectuals.

Below, Dr. Farris shares her family's tribal history:


Phoebe Farris Miles0001Chief Paul Miles and his wife, Nannie. (Photo courtesy of the  NMAI Photo Archives )

I am a direct descendant of the Miles/Mills families on the Pamunkey Reservation in King William County, Virginia. The Pamunkey reservation, founded in the early 1600s, is the oldest American Indian reservation in the U.S.; formed by a treaty with England before the U.S. became an independent country. It is now a state-recognized reservation.

The Pamunkey tribe and its village were very significant in the original Powhatan Confederacy. It was the home of Chief Powhatan, the father of Pocahontas. Today, Pamunkey tribal members work collaboratively with other Powhatan tribes in Virginia and also have descendants who are members of the Powhatan-Renape Nation in New Jersey. Some of my cousins still live on the Pamunkey reservation, while others have migrated to northern Virginia, Maryland, D.C., New York and New Jersey.

  Miles #20001Chief William Miles standing in a cornfield on the Pamunkey reservation, ca. 1980s (Photo on display in the museum's 3rd floor exhibition, Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities

Three members of the Miles/Mills family have served as chiefs on the Pamunkey reservation, including William Miles, pictured above. The necklace he is wearing in the photo above was created by my maternal aunt, Georgia Mills Jessup. Upon his passing, Chief William Miles's son was elected chief and served until a few years ago.

My great grandfather John Watson Miles left his home in King William county in the early 1870s and moved to  Fairfax County, the land of the Dogue Indians, a Powhatan tributary tribe. John married Martha Loretta Goings in Fairfax County on July 18, 1876. Like many Indians living away from the reservation, his racial classification changed on his marriage license without his permission.

My great grandmother, Martha, was a substitute teacher at the all-white Carper School and my great grandfather was a farmer, carpenter, fisherman, and lay minister; one of the founders of the historic Pleasant Grove Church, which now also functions as a museum.

JoeMillsJoseph Henry Mills (Miles), the author's grandfather, ca. 1910. He was born in Virginia in 1886 and died in 1961. (Photo courtesy of the author)

John and Martha's son, Joseph, was my grandfather. Joseph's first wife Evangeline had 11 children and died in childbirth during her last delivery. His second marriage to my grandmother Margaret Hall produced seven children. After a fire on their Virginia property, the family re-settled in Georgetown, D.C. and my mother, Phoebe Loretta Mills, was born in DC in 1927. My mother was one of the museum's early patrons. Her name and that of her mother, Margaret Hall Mills, are inscribed on the walls of the museum. My family and I have spent years searching through the museum's archives -- as well as local, state and tribal records -- to find out everything we could about where we've come from.

 With Pocohantas Players0001

My grandfather's sister, Lucy Mills, married Lewin Boston in Fairfax County on July 24, 1907. The Bostons are a historic Virginia family and several generations of Mills and Bostons married each other. The Bostons have roots in New England tribes and upon migrating to Virginia, they married Indians of Tauxenent heritage, also known as Doegs, Dogues, and Taux.

Their most famous ancestor was Keziah Powhatan, leader of the Tauxenent Indian band who burned the county courthouse in the 1700s. During the same year (1907) when Lucy Mills married Lewin Boston, her cousins on the Pamunkey reservation participated in the 300th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. The NMAI photo archives has a photo of the Miles/Mills family participants in the 1907 play, "Pocohontas Pageant," pictured above.

  Pic7The author's mother, Phoebe Mills Lyles (Pamunkey), 1927-2006 (Photo by Phoebe Farris)


In 2005, I co-curated an exhibition with artist Rose Powhatan at the Fondo del Sol Visual Arts Center in D.C.. The exhibition featured the works of contemporary Powhatan artists and writers, including several of my own relatives who, like me, continue to comb local and tribal records to learn about our family's history and community's heritage.

The exhibit's title?

"Still Here."


Author's note: The documentation for this brief family history can be found in the article, We're Still Here: Pamunkeys of Fairfax County, written by Georgia Mills Jessup and published in "Yearbook: The Historical Society of Fairfax County, Virginia, Volume 23: 1991-1992, the magazine, The Mills-Boston Family Reunion: Celebrating the Mills-Boston Family Centennial 1907-2007, the book Pamunkey Speaks: Native Perspectives, by Kenneth Bradby Jr., and publications listed in the family reunion magazine by acknowledged scholars such as anthropologist Frank Speck and historian Helen Rountree.


To learn more, visit the museum’s 3rd floor exhibition “Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities,” which examines the identities of Native peoples in the 21st century, and how those identities are the results of deliberate, often difficult choices made in challenging circumstances. In addition to the Pamunkey of Virginia, seven other communities contributed their stories: the Campo Band of Kumeyaay Indians (Southern California), urban Indian community of Chicago (Illinois), Yakama Nation (Washington State), Igloolik (Nunavut, Canada), Kahnawake Mohawk (Quebec, Canada), Saint-Laurent Metis (Manitoba, Canada), Kalinago (Dominica).


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