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Feature: Meet the Mattaponi

Originally Published December 15, 2019 by Virginia Water Trails

“We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.”

In less than 10 words, this Native American proverb eloquently sums up the importance of the history – the Native American history – that’s so powerful to the Middle Peninsula region.

And it’s a history and heritage very much alive today with the region’s Mattaponi Tribe – the people of the river.

What does Mattaponi mean?

Mattaponi means “people of the river,” a fitting name considering how important the Mattaponi River is and has been for the tribe over the 15,000 years since settling on it.

It’s been the “lifeblood of our tribe and an important part of our culture,” the tribe writes on its web site.

What is the Mattaponi River?

The Mattaponi River and its over 100 miles is a tributary of the York River.

The river itself actually formed in two main parts.

In Caroline County, the smaller Po and Ni Rivers form the Poni River. Similarly, in Spotsylvania County, the smaller Mat and Ta Rivers form the Matta River.

See where this is going?

In west Caroline County near Fredericksburg, the Matta and Poni Rivers join to form, you guessed it, the main Mattaponi River.

On the Middle Peninsula, the Mattaponi River roles through King William and King and Queen Counties.

Where is the Mattaponi Reservation?

The current Mattaponi Reservation was founded on land owned by the Mattaponi in 1658, making it one of the oldest Native American reservations in the nation.

The current Reservation is over 150 acres in size (including wetlands) and occupies land on the south bank of the Mattaponi River in a hamlet called Wakema.

How are the Mattaponi governed?

The Mattaponi are part of the original confederacy under Powhatan rule that arose after the arrival of European colonists.

Yes, THE Powhatan, the great chief of the time who was also the father of Pocahontas.

Chief Powhatan had a great deal of power before and during colonial exploration as he ruled most of the Tidewater region when the Europeans arrived, including the Middle Peninsula.

As European colonists became the main ruling body of the region, the Mattaponi Tribe signed a peace treaty in 1646, ratified in 1677.

Each year at Thanksgiving time, the Mattaponi Tribe presents a tribute of wild game, fish, or turkey to the Governor of Virginia, keeping with their obligations to the 1646/1677 Peace Treaty.

The Mattaponi is recognized as a completely sovereign government by the United States.

The Mattaponi Tribe is state-recognized and continues to maintain its own sovereign government. The governing body today consist of the Chief, Assistant Chief and Council.

How do the Mattaponi fit into early American history of the region?

The Mattaponi were one of the most prominent members of Tsenacomoco, a main confederation of native tribes.

Despite forming an uneasy alliance with the Europeans, the death of Chief Powhatan and the warlike nature of the new Chief Opechancanough led the Mattaponi to join in the second and third Anglo-Powhatan Wars in 1622 and 1644, respectively. By the end of the third war, a peace treaty was set up and a Reservation allotted for the Mattaponi Tribe.

Later in 1676, Nathaniel Bacon began his rebellion against Governor Berkeley, also known as Bacon’s Rebellion. One of the main grievances cited by Bacon was Berkeley’s monopolization of Native American trade.

So what did they do? Bacon and his men directly attacked members of the Mattaponi Tribe, driving them into hiding in the Dragon Swamp.

It was only when female Chief Cockacoeski signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation that protection was granted to the Mattaponi to return to their Reservation.

What is Mattaponi culture?

Mattaponi culture is as unique and varied as the people of the tribe.

And it starts with the Mattaponi River.

For centuries, the Mattaponi River provided the tribe with food. Shad, catfish, rockfish and more from the river all make up a large part of the traditional Mattaponi diet.

In keeping with traditional Powhatan beliefs, the tribe also continues to live in harmony with nature, something that while increasingly more difficult in modern times, is something the tribe still strives to adhere to.

The Mattaponi believe in “giving back” to nature, not just taking.

An example of this in action includes their centuries-old tradition to annually release several million shad farmed in their Reservation hatchery.

Traditional art, such as clay pottery, continues to be made today, and the land of the tribe is farmed.

An emphasis is also made on teaching original Mattaponi language ensure that Mattaponi culture remains through the ages.

Efforts are also being made by tribal members to revitalize the Mattaponi Powhatan Algonquin language. Children are taught their ancestral language, along with other aspects of Powhatan heritage. ​​

What is the Mattaponi Reservation like?

The Mattaponi Reservation is one of the oldest native American reservations in the country with 75 of the 450 remaining members of the Mattaponi living on the 150-acre sect of land.

The Reservation itself has a great deal of facilities on site, to include a fish hatchery, church, museum, marine science center, and a tribal community building.

The Reservation sits on the banks of the Mattaponi River. Facilities on the Reservation today include living quarters, a Baptist Church, a Museum, a Trading Post, a Fish Hatchery, a Marine Science Center, and a Community Tribal building that was formerly the Reservation school.

The Mattaponi Indian Reservation School building served as a school and church from 1890 to 1932. The school taught grades first through eighth. The Baptist church was built in 1932, where the Mattaponi people continue to worship today. The school remained active until the 1960s, when Mattaponi children were able to attend public schools. The schoolhouse is currently used as the tribal center and pottery shop.

Can the Mattaponi River be explored?

Yes! Yes! Yes!

The Mattaponi is known as a beautiful paddling destination and there are numerous ways to explore it.

Want to learn more?

Visit the Mattaponi Indian Reservation website here.

Photo collage courtesy of the Mattaponi Indian Reservation.


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