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On Friday, the Rappahannock Tribe celebrated a historic win: the reacquisition of 465 acres of their ancestral homeland at Fones Cliffs, a sacred stretch of bluffs on the eastern side of the Rappahannock River in eastern Virginia.

“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,” Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson said.

The federally recognized Rappahannock Tribe can trace its history in the area to before the 1600s, when English explorer John Smith arrived on their shores. The  tribe lived in at least three villages on the Cliffs—Wecuppom, Matchopick and Pissacoac—before being chased away some 350 years ago.

“My people have lived here since the beginning,” Chief Richardson told an All Things Considered reporter earlier this year.

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The land-back movement was made possible by a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Chesapeake Conservancy, and the tribe itself. Fones Cliffs will be permanently owned by the tribe, and placed in trust with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The tribe called the news a huge win for both racial justice and conservation. Fones Cliffs is one of the most important sites for bald eagles on the east coast, as well as rare and threatened plant life.

The land will be publicly accessible and held with a permanent conservation easement conveyed to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, according to a press release from the tribe.

Fones Cliffs (Photo by Jeffrey Allenby for Chesapeake Conservancy)Fones Cliffs (Photo by Jeffrey Allenby for Chesapeake Conservancy)Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland joined the tribe on Friday to celebrate their announcement in Chance, Virginia, today.

“The Department is honored to join the Rappahannock Tribe in co-stewardship of this portion of their ancestral homeland,” Haaland said. “This historic reacquisition underscores how tribes, private landowners and other stakeholders all play a central role in this administration’s work to ensure our conservation efforts are locally led and support communities’ health and well-being.” 

The tribe plans to build walking trails along the river, and a replica of a 16th-century village where tribal members can educate the public about their history.

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Staff Writer
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the publication's lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.