The Rappahannock Tribe reacquired 465 acres of land at Fones Cliffs in Richmond County on April 1. Fones Cliffs is a sacred site to the Tribe located on the eastern side of the Rappahannock River, and they were forcibly removed from the Cliffs in 1649 after English settlers stole valuable farmland.
Native fish, birds, and plant species along the river are of cultural significance to the Tribe — and the land is most notably home to bald eagles, which are sacred to them. Fones Cliffs is also an Important Bird Area as designated by the National Audubon Society.
“We have worked for many years to restore this sacred place to the Tribe. With eagles being prayer messengers, this area where they gather has always been a place of natural, cultural, and spiritual importance,” says Rappahannock Tribe Chief Anne Richardson.
The acres at Fones Cliff will be publicly accessible, and the Tribe will plan for trails and a replica of a 16th-century village so that tribal citizens can educate the public about Rappahannock Tribe history and Indigenous approaches to conservation.
The Tribe will also connect future generations of Rappahannock youth to their tribal traditions and to the river that bears their name.
Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland says the department is looking forward to “drawing upon Tribal expertise and Indigenous knowledge in helping manage the area’s wildlife and habitat,” noting that the historic reacquisition conveys how Tribes and other local stakeholders can ensure the nation’s conservation efforts support communities’ health and well-being.
The land will be held with a permanent conservation easement conveyed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization that helps build parks, trails, and public access sites, donated the easement to USFWS, and then the fee title to the Tribe.
“This is a significant step forward in the overall goal to save approximately 2,000 acres at Fones Cliffs, a haven for wildlife and waterfowl, and one of the most beautiful places in the Chesapeake and, in fact, the world,” says Joel Dunn, the Chesapeake Conservancy president and CEO.
The Rappahannock Tribe lived in at least three villages on the Cliffs — Wecuppom, Matchopick, and Pissacoack — prior to contact with the English. Fones Cliffs is where the Tribe first encountered and defended their home against John Smith in 1608.
The Rappahannock Tribe is a federally recognized sovereign nation headquartered at Indian Neck in King & Queen County. The Cliffs and other areas surrounding the Rappahannock River are the ancestral homelands of the Tribe, and they continue to live and conduct traditional cultural practices along the river.
“We have a lot of work ahead to undo many wrongs inflicted on Tribal communities, but milestones like this one are a powerful reminder that meaningful steps are possible and necessary,” says Sen. Tim Kaine, who first introduced the 2018 legislation which recognized six Virginia Tribes, including the Rappahannock.
Additional funding to conserve the 465 of ancestral homelands comes from a grant by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation through Walmart’s Acres for America program.
Photo by Ron Leung.
For more stories like this, subscribe to our Local News newsletter.