Pamunkey Schoolhouse, Photograph, May 31, 1937
After Virginia created its first statewide system of free public schools in 1870, many of the state's Indians were left out. The Pamunkey and Mattaponi who resided on ancient tribal reservations in King William County had been exempt from taxation since the seventeenth century and did not initially gain access to the local public schools. By the beginning of the twentieth century several Virginia tribes had small, one-room frame schools, which for decades the state partially supported. This school on the Pamunkey reservation offered elementary education to a small number of children until it closed in the 1950s, but many Virginia Indians who desired to attend high school were denied admittance to the racially segregated public schools in Virginia and either had to leave home to attend a government Indian school in another state or quit school before completing their education. The Pamunkey Indian school is now part of the tribal museum on the Pamunkey Reservation.
During the colonial period, some American Indians residing in the different colonies or on the edges of newly settled regions were enslaved, some were moved out of their traditional homelands, and others received visits from missionaries who attempted to convert them to Christianity or to educate them in order that they could be absorbed into the European culture. In the 1690s the College of William and Mary, in Virginia, received a donation of funds to begin an Indian school that operated off and on until the twentieth century. Beginning late in the nineteenth century, the United States government created Indian schools, mostly in the West, intended to prepare young Indians for assimilation into mainstream American culture. Those schools suppressed the use of Indian languages and cultural practices.
American Indians were not American citizens even after ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, and they were often discriminated against and denied the equal protection of the laws. After the Civil War, white government officials in Virginia began to enforce racial distinctions that before the war had not always affected American Indian descendants. After the creation of the public school system, American Indian children were not allowed to attend white schools. Legalized segregation forced American Indian communities to search for differences between themselves and African Americans. For American Indian tribes, reasserting American Indian identity meant rejecting the biracial categories of “white” and “colored.”
Schools became a key site to assert American Indian autonomy. Between 1880 and 1920, many American Indian communities established their own schools rather than attend black schools. In this way, American Indians resisted the color line by insisting on the creation of “Indian” as a third category. In Virginia, the Pamunkey tribe went so far as to carry membership cards with them so they could not be forced onto the “colored” railway coach. Some Pamunkey tribal chiefs wore their hair long in order to show that it was straight and not curly. The Pamunkey Tribe established its own school, which consisted of a single-story frame building.
1. Does this schoolhouse look like your school? What do you think it would be like to go to school in a building like this one?
2. Did all children go to school together when this schoolhouse was built?
1. Virginia Indians have struggled to retain their designation as American Indians. Why is it important to allow people to define themselves, as opposed to having other groups, such as government officials impose a designation on them? Study the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in this context.
The Pamunkey Tribe is one of eight Virginia Indian tribes recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The Pamunkey were part of the Powhatan chiefdom when the Europeans arrived in 1607. The reservation lands were assigned as early as 1658 by the governor, the Council, and the General Assembly of Virginia. The treaty of 1677 between the king of England, acting through the governor of Virginia, and several Indian tribes, including the Pamunkey, is one of the most-significant existing documents describing Virginia's relationship towards Indian land. The Pamunkey is one of only two Virginia Indian tribes that still retain their original reservation lands.
Brooks, James F. ed. Confounding the Color Line: The Indian-Black Experience in North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2002.
Reyhner, Jon Allan. American Indian Education: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.
Rountree, Helen. Pocahontas's People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.