Lighting Up West Virginia’s Native American Past After Suppression

11,000 people in WV claim Native American ancestry — Couldn’t own property until 1960s

In Moundsville, Native Americans are present through the stories of the Adena people and the mound they built over two thousand years ago. We couldn’t find anybody in town with Native American ancestry to interview, but in West Virginia, there are still some 11,000 people who claim ancestry, out of a population of 1.8 million.

In the 18th century, white settlers and explorers, including George Washington, found a land of rivers and valleys dotted with settlements, sometimes villages in the thousands, and tribes that included, among others, the Shawnee, Mingo, Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca and Mohawk. Humans had lived in Appalachia for over ten thousand years, forming some of the oldest settlements on the continent after trekking from Asia. The town of Wheeling’s name comes from a Delaware word that means “place of the skull.” Famously, white settlers battled Native Americans in and around the Ohio Valley. The Battle of Point Pleasant, in 1774, “eliminated Native Americans as a force on the frontier for the first three years of the American Revolutionary War, clearing the way for peaceful settlement of the region,” notes the state’s official history.

In the 19th century, as the United States of America thundered westward, the government forced Native Americans to relocate to reservations outside West Virginia, or assimilate and list themselves as “white” or “colored”, a process that continued into the 1950s. We talked to people who grew up next to Cherokees born in the 19th century, segregated in the same part of town as African-Americans. It wasn’t until Civil Rights legislation was passed in the 1960s that Native Americans could own property in the state.

Although West Virginia was founded in 1863 during the Civil War as Virginia without slavery, it was still segregated, “and Indians didn’t legally exist,” Wayne Appleton, head of the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia, told me. “When people raised the question of why some people in the state have darker skin, the standard answer was, well, we’re Portuguese, because that made them white.” Appleton, a Charleston-based chemist who also goes by the name “Chief Grey Owl”, has made it his life’s work to resurrect the heritage of Native Americans in the state.

Federal and state leaders did all kinds of things to obscure the history of previous human inhabitants. They spread rumors that somebody else had built burial mounds. Curriculums emphasized that West Virginia had been empty, or a “hunting ground”, before white settlers moved in, a line we heard echoed in interviews for the film. It’s comforting for white Americans to think that their ancestors didn’t displace anybody in settling this vast, diverse land.

In the last few decades, the light of truth has been shining through in parts. In 1996, West Virginia’s state senate passed a resolution recognizing Appleton’s group, the AAIWV, and affirming that “American Indians were the original inhabitants of the lands that now comprise the United States of America and West Virginia.” The resolution noted that “concepts such as the freedom of speech and the separation of powers in government, all of which were found in the political systems of various American Indian nations, influenced the formation of the government of the United States of America.”

John W. Miller

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