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August 22, 2013

Kevin Brown, Chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe

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. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. Can you give us your Native name? 

Kevin Brown, chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. The Onondagas call me Shunkawaka. 

Kevin Bown, chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. Photo courtesy of the tribe.
What responsibilities do you have in your community? 

General administration, chairing meetings and working with committees, and genealogical and historic research. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead? 

I have spent a lot of time on other reservations. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

My grandfather and great uncles, also Leon Shenandoah, [the late head of the Iroquois Confederacy and an advocate for indigenous peoples' rights worldwide]; Tom Porter, [the Mohawk elder and cultural and spiritual leader]; and Jimmy Little Turtle, [the son of Viola White Water (Shawnee), who has continued her work promoting Indian culture and education].

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

Coekoquiske, [a 17th-century leader who was referred to at that time as] the “Queen of Pamunkey.”

Where is your community located?

The Pamunkey Indian Reservation is adjacent to King William County, Virginia.

Where are the Pamunkey people originally from? 

We’ve always been here. 

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

We captured John Smith and took him before Powhatan. 

Approximately how many members are in your tribe? 

We have 208 tribal members, 40 of whom are reservation residents. 

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

You must be a direct descendant from one of our base of 40 tribal-roll members living on the reservation in 1900 and 1910, and you must have kept a social connection with the reservation. 

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? 

We lost our fluency, but are currently having language classes on the reservation.

What economic enterprises does the Pamunkey Tribe own? 

Duck hunting and the rental of duck blinds are our main sources of income.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land? 

The Pamunkey Indian Museum, Powhatan’s Grave, and the Pamunkey Fish Hatchery

What annual events does the tribe sponsor?

We sponsor the annual Pamunkey Fish Hatchery Fish Fry [in the spring, at the end of the shad season].

How is the tribal government set up? 

There is a chief and a seven-member council. We have an elective system, and we use peas and corn to vote in a secret ballot. A kernel of corn means yea, and a pea means nay.

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

The elected chief and council have replaced hereditary chiefs and Clan Mothers. 

Sweat lodge photo 1a
Chief Brown preparing a sweat lodge. Photo courtesy of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

Every four years, like the U.S. president.

How often does the tribal council meet? 

The council meets at least six times per year, and the “town,” or resident tribal community, meets four times per year.

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

We have treaties with England signed in 1646 and 1677, and we take an annual tribute of a deer to the Governor of Virginia. We are also currently waiting for federal recognition. 

What message would you like to share with Indian youth? 

Keep strong, keep your culture strong. Onah. [And now it is time.]

Thank you. 


To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. 


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 images used with permission. 


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This is a wonderful series. I am enjoying it immensely and look forward to future interviews.

I appreciate this page very much, because I just learned my Native ancestry was Pamunkey and now I'm trying to learn about them. This is very informative.

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