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June 05, 2014

Meet Native America: Chief Ken Adams, Upper Mattaponi 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, the 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, NMAI 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Chief Ken Adams, Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe

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

I do not have a separate Native name.

Where is the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe located?

Our community is in upper King William County, Virginia. 

Where was your tribe originally from?

Written documentation dating to shortly after arrival of the British colonialists shows at least nine separate Indian towns on the Mattaponi River and also several other Indian towns nearby on the Pamunkey River. Late-17th-century maps indicate a large concentration of Natives on the Upper Mattaponi River in the vicinity of the present day Upper Mattaponi Tribe. 

Ken Adams and Queen Elizabeth a
Chief Ken Adams, Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, takes part in welcoming Britain's Queen Elizabeth II to Virginia on the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Jamestown. Virginia Governor Tim Caine and First Lady Anne Holton look on. Richmond, Virginia; May 3, 2007. Photo courtesy of the tribe. 

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

Until the late 1800s, almost all of our people had no formal education. However, in 1892 a request was made by the local school superintendent to the Bureau of Indian Education for support of Indians in King William County. A few years later, in 1917, we built our own school—Sharon Indian School—and from that point forward we have consistently improved our conditions. Even as late as the 1960s, most tribal citizens left the Commonwealth of Virginia in order to get a high school education, and even with many obstacles many were able to graduate from high school and college.

How is your tribal government set up? 

Our government consists of a chief, assistant chief, and five councilmen. Our officers are treasurer and secretary. 

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

I would say that in addition to elected leaders within our tribe, we have always had informal leaders, not a specific, designated entity. In the 20th century most of those leaders are connected with our church, Indian View Baptist.

How often are elected leaders chosen?

We have formal elections every four years and appointments by the chief to vacant positions.

How often does the Upper Mattaponi Tribal Council meet?

We have monthly scheduled meetings where all tribal citizens can participate. If necessary, we can also call a special meeting.

IMG_4279 K Adams a
Chief Ken Adams, Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe. Photo courtesy of the tribe.

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

I grew up next to and attended Sharon Indian School and Indian View Baptist Church. Along with one other Upper Mattaponi citizen, I was the first Upper Mattaponi to graduate from a public high school in King William County, in 1965. After graduation I served for 24 years in the U.S. Air Force in many positions of leadership. I received a bachelor's degree from Southern Illinois University in 1979.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

My basic responsibility is to carry out, to the best of my ability, the wishes and desires of the Upper Mattaponi people. I also maintain relationships with other tribal leaders and local, state, and federal government leaders. I am the key spokesperson for our tribe when meeting with those leaders. 

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My inspiration came from my grandparents, parents, and older brothers and sisters. In difficult times they managed to persevere without complaining and worked hard to improve the lives of other Mattaponi citizens.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader?

If there is one true historical leader in the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, he is my grandfather, Jasper L. Adams. 

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

Approximately 575.

What are the criteria to become a member of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe?

The most important criterion is to represent our tribe well and be willing to work hard to carry out the desires of the tribe.

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

Our language is not spoken.

What economic enterprises does your tribe own?

Within the past few years we have managed to purchase a substantial piece of land and made numerous improvements on it. We have also restored Sharon Indian School, the only surviving public Indian school in Virginia. We are looking into other ways of supporting economic development.

What annual events do the Upper Mattaponi sponsor?

Annually we have three major events: a pow-wow in the spring, our church homecoming in August, and a Christmas gathering in December.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

We own the only American Indian public school in Virginia.

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

We are not federally recognized. However, in certain cases we have de facto relationships with the federal government. For instance, in the 1940s we received authorization to attend federal Indian boarding schools, and during the first decade of the 20th century, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers negotiated with us as with federally recognized tribes on a reservoir issue in King William, Virginia.

What message would you like to share with Upper Mattaponi youth?

Stay connected with your tribe and your people and encourage everyone to know and understand their history.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I could comment a great deal, but nothing more at this time. Thank you. 

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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