Meet the group that wants to be the first Cherokee tribe recognized by Virginia

By: - November 28, 2019 12:03 am

The Wolf Creek Cherokee Tribe is seeking state recognition. The tribe, which as a museum in Varina, has roots all over the state with many tribe members in Southwest Virginia and Henrico County. (Mechelle Hankerson/ Virginia Mercury)

November is the busiest month of the year for Wolf Creek Cherokee Chief Terry Price.

He travels to military installations, schools and community events around the state in between running his heating and cooling business. Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, he’s back at the Wolf Creek Cherokee Museum in Henrico County for the tribe’s traditional drum circle, where men play drums and sing songs in the Cherokee language.

While Price is welcomed around Virginia as a predominant chief and has a full schedule for National Native American Heritage Month, his tribe doesn’t have state recognition despite several attempts.

State recognition doesn’t come with financial benefits like federal recognition does, but it’s a symbolic acknowledgement of the native population’s challenges and existence considering governments tried to systematically erase Native culture, Price said.

“We want respect,” he said. “Cherokee people were always here, there were more Cherokee people than any other people at one time. And we want respect for my family … and all the troubles we had in the past.”

The Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes are recognized by the state because of Colonial-era treaties. Others had a variety of paths to state recognition, like General Assembly action or judicial action.

Now, tribes like the Wolf Creek have to petition the Office of Secretary of the Commonwealth, which will consult an appointed Indian Advisory Board before approval.

The Wolf Creek tribe is the first to alert the state they intend to seek recognition with that process, Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson said. 

If approved for state recognition, the Wolf Creek tribe would be the first Cherokee tribe to earn state recognition in Virginia, Price said.

The Wolf Creek’s application will be reviewed by the Indian Advisory Board, which includes representatives from other Virginia tribes and non-Native members of state agencies like the Library of Virginia and Department of Education. 

The Wolf Creek Cherokee Tribe is pursuing state recognition, the first tribe to do so under a new process approved in 2016 (Mechelle Hankerson/ The Virginia Mercury)

Who are the Wolf Creek tribe?

Native tribes are blood-related family units. The Wolf Creek tribe is made up of people who had a blood relation to Price. Many of the tribe’s members live in the mountains of Southwest Virginia or just east of Richmond, though they can be found all over the state, Price said. They count about 170 members but only have 69 on official tribal rolls.

According to the tribe’s letter to the state to start the process of gaining recognition, “the press of white settlement … forced many Cherokee to leave their homeland, some to travel the Trail of Tears, others to disperse themselves to other places across the vast continent … our own ancestors chose to retreat into the mountains — and into the area near Wolf Creek Mountain.”

Later, the tribe was erased from official documents by Virginia’s first registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics and white supremacist, Walter Plecker, the letter reads.

The Wolf Creek tribe is in a better position than many other native tribes. Price has extensive documentation of the tribe’s history, ownership of some tribal land and enough members to keep traditions and language alive.

All of those can be used to evaluate the tribe’s application. The advisory board also asks for genealogy, proof the tribe is an active, organized group and has “retained a specific Indian tribal identity.” 

When Price became chief, he moved the Wolf Creek Cherokee Museum to Henrico, where many members were living. There, visitors can see what has been found on archaeological digs on nearby tribal land, photos of events and members and view traditional regalia. It’s also a gathering place for tribe members.

“We teach our history because they do not teach it in schools,” Price said. “If we don’t do that, who else is going to do it? The state’s not going to do it. There’s a lot of hidden history.”

Every tribe operates differently. In Virginia, the Pamunkey tribe is pursuing a waterfront casino project in Norfolk.

When asked if the Wolf Creek tribe had similar economic development aspirations, Price said, “Not all Natives are the same. If they do their thing … that’s their thing. We want to just keep things simple.”

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Mechelle Hankerson
Mechelle Hankerson

Mechelle, born and raised in Virginia Beach, is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a degree in mass communications and a concentration in print journalism. She covered the General Assembly for the university’s Capital News Service and was among 12 student journalists in swing states selected by the Washington Post to cover the 2012 presidential election. For the past five years, she has covered local government, crime, housing, infrastructure and other issues at the Raleigh News & Observer and The Virginian-Pilot, where she most recently covered the state’s biggest city, Virginia Beach. Mechelle was with the Virginia Mercury until January 3rd, 2019.