The 29th Annual Nansemond Pow Wow is just a few days away and, though most Nansemond research is focused on the 1600s through the 1800s, I thought this would be a great time to share some insight on recent Nansemond history and the people, both inside and outside the community, who have been influential in the formation of the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association (NITA). This article will include detail on Nansemond leaders, their lineage, state recognition, the establishment of tribal by-laws and enrollment processes, the reclamation of ancestral land, and potential federal recognition.
There is a small group of individuals who have held the title of Nansemond chief over the past century. Their contributions to the development of the present day NITA have varied greatly, with some being more focused on the outdoors and survivalism and others being more focused on cultural and political advocacy. In order to highlight these contributions, I have given a name to each chief that reflects who they were and what they valued.
Jesse Lindsay Bass was the youngest son of James Michael Bass and Elizabeth Ann Bass. He was raised in “Yadkin” on the northeastern edge of the Great Dismal Swamp where the Christianized Nansemond community lived for generations before him. He and his family attended Indiana United Methodist Church which was established in 1850 as a mission for the Nansemond families in the area. Jesse worked as a truck farmer, like many others in his community, and married Clara (Carrie) Lugene Anderson in 1899. He and Carrie had twelve children over the course of their lives and raised them on Galberry Road in Norfolk County, VA.
Due to his love and natural talent as a hunter, Jesse was known as the “Daniel Boone of Norfolk County.” He attributed this ability to his grandfather, William Bass, and passed the passion on to his own sons. Jesse’s favorite place to hunt was in the Great Dismal Swamp (where he was noted as trapping in Washington Ditch on the west side of Lake Drummond) and he was a member of the Yadkin Hunt Club.
Records reveal that Jesse and his family consistently identified as “Indian” and lived as part of an insular Indian community (with several marriages between cousins). During Jesse’s lifetime a number of anthropologists, most notably James Mooney and Frank Speck, researched Powhatan tribes throughout Virginia and had several visits with the Nansemond in the area. Despite their encouragement to organize and pursue state recognition for the tribe, Jesse had little interest in the bureaucracy and political action required for such an effort.
Jesse’s legacy with the Nansemond community is his legendary familiarity with the Great Dismal Swamp and his ability to survive from the land like his Nansemond ancestors. He and several of his contemporaries (e.g., his older brother Augustus A. Bass) opened their lives to anthropological research that led to the publication of several important references for future generations. Jesse Lindsay Bass’ name remains one of the most recognized among Nansemond descendants and researchers.
Earl Lawrence Bass was the son of Jesse L. Bass and Carrie L. Anderson. He married Lucille Bass (the daughter of William Henry Bass and Victoria Sculthorpe) in Camden County, NC on November 8, 1927. Earl and Lucille raised their children on Jolliff Road in Norfolk County, VA on the northwestern edge of the Yadkin Nansemond community. Like his father, Earl was a member of Yadkin Hunt Club and he was known for keeping 30-60 hunting dogs at a time. He too was a guide for prominent professionals of the region into the swamp on paid hunting excursions and was featured in statewide magazines for his expertise.
Earl lived through a number of societal changes. The Racial Integrity Act, which passed the Virginia General Assembly on March 20, 1924, required that all Virginians be divided into two races at birth—”White” or “Negro.” This meant that members of the Nansemond community who were documented as “Indian” for generations would be forced into one of these categories. Walter Plecker, who was Virginia’s Registrar of Statistics from the 1920s through the 1940s, specifically targeted the Basses of Norfolk County (as well as the Sawyers, Weavers, Locklears, Kings, Brights, Porters, and Ingrams) for “passing” as Indian and retroactively changed a number of birth records to comply with this new piece of legislation.
Earl also lived through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s and the political resurgence of tidewater Native Americans in the 1980s. Like his father, Earl Bass’ legacy was that of a hunter with an innate connection to the land, water, and wildlife. His legacy is also that of a transitional figure—his generation being the bridge between the unorganized, extended family of Nansemond descendants and the ultimate formation of the NITA.
Oliver Linwood Perry was born the son of Richard L. Perry, Sr. and Fannie Bond Perry (a fourth cousin once removed of Earl L. Bass). Unlike Jesse and Earl, he grew up on 32nd Street in Norfolk City about 20 minutes northeast of Bowers Hill. While many of the Nansemond men of the Yadkin area were truck farmers, Oliver had a long career in the United States military (as both a service member and civilian).
In the early days of his retirement, Oliver was inspired to learn more about his Indian ancestry by the organization of a number of Virginia Indian tribes in the 1980s. An Indian state council formed in 1982 with tribal representatives from the Mattaponi, Rappahannock, and Chickahominy (but the Nansemond were not represented because Earl Bass had not become involved). This created an opportunity for Oliver to engage as an organizer for the unorganized Nansemond descendants (many of which did not even know what type of Indian they descended from).
Oliver dedicated himself to the research and documentation of his Indian ancestors. After about a year, when he had a body of information to share (collected from local courthouses and libraries), he held the first meeting of Nansemond descendants on July 21, 1984. Oliver expected a small gathering of about twenty people but a surprising sixty-one people attended and strongly supported the goal to formally organize the tribe. Through a concentrated effort involving several other Virginia Indian tribes, anthropologists, and state officials, the Nansemond were granted state recognition on February 20, 1985 under House Joint Resolution No. 205.
The records submitted through the state recognition process are available at the Library of Virginia in Governor Chuck Robb’s (1982-1986) Papers (Accession # 32462). One might assume this record collection would contain a complete Nansemond genealogy but it does not. The recognition process was more focused on validating the continuous existence of a tribal community than on presenting a broad and complete tribal genealogy.
The most informative document in the set is a paper by Helen Rountree titled “The Ethnogenesis of a Virginia Indian Tribe: The Nansemond Indian Tribal Association.” In it, Rountree provided a candid account of her support to the Nansemond through the challenging process of forming of a tribal association after decades of living as an insular yet assimilated community of extended family. Her narrative includes everything from the earliest efforts to organize, to meetings with more mature tribal associations, the establishment of by-laws and enrollment processes, meeting format, and the re-creation of historically accurate Nansemond traditions.
These accomplishments made Oliver Perry one of the most influential people in modern Nansemond history. In his lifetime, he was appointed by the Governor to the Virginia Council on Indians from 1986 to 1995 (chaired by Thomasina E. Jordan, the namesake of the bill for the Federal Recognition of Virginia Indian tribes), a representative of the Commonwealth of Virginia to the National Governors’ Interstate Indian Council Conference from 1986 to 1995, and an educator at a number of regional events on Indian history.
Oliver Perry’s legacy, which is unstudied by many due to his lack of the recognizable Bass name, is that of a strong organizer and communicator in recent Nansemond history. Beyond leading the tribe to state recognition, he established a historical and genealogical foundation for the tribe to grow.
Barry Bass is the son of Joseph Alwood Bass (son of Earl Lawrence Bass) and Lucille Wyant who married in Pasquotank County, NC on January 13, 1950. He was elected as chief in 2008 (just two years prior to the passing of Oliver Perry). Under Chief Barry Bass’ leadership, the Nansemond tribe has seen significant advancements. After ten years of negotiations, the City of Suffolk agreed to return roughly 77 acres of ancestral land in Lone Star Lakes Park (facing the Nansemond River) to the tribe in 2013. This milestone, as the first Nansemond-owned land since the sale of the tribe’s last land in 1792, was celebrated at the 26th Annual Nansemond Pow Wow.
As part of an agreement with the city, the NITA developed plans for a 17th century replica village called Mattanock Town (named after one of the original four Nansemond villages mentioned in the writing of Captain John Smith). Development plans for Mattanock Town include a burial ground, cultural center, and a number of attractions for an estimated 50,000 paying visitors each year. This monumental vision will require a significant amount of private funding to come to fruition but progress has been steady through support from the community.
From initial state recognition in 1985 to today, the NITA has grown to approximately 200 tribal members. In more recent years, Chief Barry Bass has been seen less and (former Assistant) Chief Earl Bass has assumed leadership at tribal events and meetings (with his brother Samuel Bass in the role of Assistant Chief). Chief Barry Bass leaves a legacy as a respected leader during a period of Nansemond growth and revitalization and Chief Earl Bass has been an open and accessible leader in his time at the forefront.
As is evident from the history of Nansemond chiefs, tribal leadership has primarily come from the direct descendants of Jesse Lindsay Bass. Oliver Perry (a Bass cousin) rose to leadership through strong advocacy and political action on behalf of the tribe. Today, leadership has returned to the Bass line and a number of new opportunities wait on the horizon—most notably the 2017-2018 re-introduction of the Thomasina E. Jordan Bill for the Federal Recognition of 6 state-recognized Virginia Indian tribes.
In addition to official tribal leadership, a number of individuals of Nansemond ancestry have researched and published tribal history and genealogy. These people have both directly and indirectly influenced the growth of the tribe by determining the lineage(s) accepted for tribal enrollment. While the history of Nansemond people as a whole is well documented, Nansemond genealogy has been complex and controversial. The integration of genetic data (and the patrilineal Y-DNA of Bass descendants) into the establishment of Nansemond lineage has been a recent source of contention among descendants and researchers.
Lea Dowd is a Nansemond tribal member and refers to her ancestors as part of the Nansemond community that was not Christianized. While her direct ancestors are not publicly documented, she may have been referencing the Nansemond people who lived as part of the Nottoway community of Southampton County, VA after being displaced by colonists.
Among Nansemond researchers, Lea Dowd is recognized as the primary tribal genealogist of the 1990s through the 2000s. While she is noted as having researched the Nansemond for decades, her findings are not highly accessible. She published an article in the North Carolina Genealogical Society Journal (February 1996) titled “Conflicting Information on Basse/Bass Heritage” in which she strongly disputed some of the research of Paul Heinegg and some of the research of Albert Dehner Bell. She, along with fellow Nansemond researcher Patti L. Silvestri, also published an article titled “Descendants of Edward Basse and Mary Tucker: Another Native American Family“ in which they proposed that Edward Bass was part of another tribal community.
In addition to her published research, Lea has an inactive personal website and she is also the registrant (and likely webmaster) of the Nansemond.org web address. Many Nansemond descendants and genealogists have corresponded with Lea but in recent years she has been less accessible. Her reputation is complex as most researchers respect her dedication and experience yet disagree with a number of her published positions. Lea lives in Georgia and, while she has traveled to the Great Dismal Swamp for tribal research, she has not been a part of the close Nansemond community in Norfolk County, VA.
Fred Bright is a Nansemond tribal member and a Bass through his third great grandmother Elizabeth Bass (wife of Joseph Bright). Joseph Bright was born in North Carolina (possibly part of the large Bright/Brite family of neighboring Camden County, NC) while Elizabeth Bass was part of the Norfolk County Nansemond community. Together they provided the land used to build the Indiana United Methodist Church in Bowers Hill. The same land was used for the Nansemond Indian Public School which was first established in 1890. Fred enrolled in the Nansemond tribe in 1996 and he was already active in Nansemond research by that time. He recorded primary accounts from his Bright and Bass ancestors and was a Family History Director at his local Mormon church.
Fred eventually assumed the role of tribal genealogist and partnered in research with Lea Dowd, Patti Silvestri, and Sheila Stover. Like Lea Dowd, Fred has fielded a number of questions from people in the online research community; however, he has not published articles on the subject. As a member of the Norfolk County Nansemond community, he has dedicated most of his effort to cultural and environmental preservation by teaching lessons on flint knapping to craft arrowheads and serving on the Crittenden Eclipse Heritage Foundation’s project to map the Nansemond River. Fred has been a familiar face at many of the Nansemond Pow Wows and participated in a number of programs.
In addition to Nansemond-descended researchers, there have been a number of individuals without Nansemond ancestry who have researched and published tribal history and genealogy. There are many researchers who could be included in this section (most notably Paul Heinegg who has published one of the broadest and most widely referenced Bass lineages) but this list is limited to those who have received authorized access to tribal records and collected primary accounts from tribal leadership.
In 1885 James Mooney was hired by John Wesley Powell as an ethnographer with the Bureau of American Ethnology (part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC). Mooney’s research spanned from Southeastern to Great Plains Indians. He spent a number of years researching the Cherokee of southwestern North Carolina and later shifted his research to Virginia Indian history.
In his article “The Powhatan Confederacy, Past and Present,” published in the American Anthropologist (1907), he included a tribal census of 61 Nansemond households living around Bowers Hill in Norfolk County, VA. He named “A. A. Bass” (Augustus A. Bass, older brother of Jesse L. Bass) as the “principal man” at the time and captured a number of photos of him with various family members.
Frank Speck graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in anthropological ethnography in 1904. He went on to earn an M.A. and Ph.D. in the same research area and became a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. At a time when many anthropologists were interested in studying foreign cultures, Speck was dedicated to the study of Eastern Woodland Native Americans. As part of his research he visited many of the Algonquian Indian remnants of Virginia in the 1920s and actively advocated for their political recognition. In 1928 he published “Chapters on Ethnology of the Powhatan Tribes of Virginia, Indian Notes and Monographs” which included notes on the Nansemond people.
The importance of Mooney and Speck’s research to Virginia Indians cannot be understated because it was conducted around the same time as the passing of the Racial Integrity Act when many members of state government were trying to erase evidence of Indian communities in Virginia. They gave validity to people who were thoroughly assimilated yet maintained an Indian identity (validity that is still relied upon today as the sole research references in the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017).
Despite the value of Mooney and Speck’s research, they have also been criticized due to their emphasis on racial purity as a means of “salvaging” Indian populations. Arica Coleman’s book “That the Blood Stay Pure, African Americans, Native Americans, and the Predicament of Race and Identity in Virginia,” provides a detailed analysis of the sociopolitical dynamics that formed the relationships between prominent anthropologists and Virginia Indians. Coleman’s research reveals that many conflicts related to race originated with the intentions of anthropologists rather than with Virginia Indians.
Albert Bell was a genealogist who published research on a number of families from 1947 to 1997. He was commissioned by Edward Bass to compile a Bass genealogy (including oral history from Bass family members) which was published in 1961. Bell’s book, titled “Bass families of the South : a collection of historical and genealogical source materials from public and private records” was the preeminent Bass family reference for many years. In more recent years, some have criticized his research (citing errors and a bias toward proving the Basses had Huguenot ancestry) but others have noted that his book is fundamentally a compilation of information from other resources and can be trusted (for the most part) as a reference.
Helen Rountree is the longest active and most published researcher of Virginia Indians. She began her research in 1969 and, over the course of her career, closely studied numerous tribes from historical, anthropological, cultural, and political perspectives. Rountree was openly critical of some of Mooney and Speck’s methodology (suggesting that they influenced tidewater Indians to conform to their preconceived notions of “Indianness” rather than objectively observing them as they were); however, she continued their legacy of anthropological advocacy to support Virginia Indian tribes during their petitions for state recognition in the 1980s.
Some of Rountree’s most popular publications are The Indians of Virginia: A Third Race in a Biracial State (1979), Ethnicity Among the Citizen Indians of Tidewater Virginia (1986), and Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia through Four Centuries (1990). While each of her publications sheds light on Nansemond people, her paper “The Ethnogenesis of a Virginia Indian Tribe: The Nansemond Indian Tribal Association” contains the most detailed and intimate account of recent Nansemond history.
While Helen Rountree is the most recognizable name in Virginia Indian research, Danielle Moretti-Langholtz should be of interest to Nansemond researchers. She completed a thesis titled “Other Names I Have Been Called: Political Resurgence Among Virginia Indians in the Twentieth Century” which included an in-depth account of two years of fieldwork in the late 1990s with the Nansemond tribe. Moretti-Langholtz was able to observe private historical records and interview tribal members on a number of different issues. Some of her research reiterates Rountree’s findings but it is also demonstrative of the next stage of social and political evolution for Virginia Indians. Moretti-Langholtz’s research is publicly available and is a source of information on Nansemond tribal dynamics that is not shared in other locations.
Part of my reason for writing this article is the perception that NITA information is “private” and that unenrolled Nansemond descendants cannot learn about the tribe. This perception is, for the most part, unfounded considering the candid information about the recent history of the tribe that is available in a variety of resources. It is true that there are a number of genealogical issues to be resolved that significantly affect eligibility for tribal enrollment but these issues originate from a number of sources—not solely from the tribe (i.e., inconsistencies in historical records, misguided anthropological advocacy, requirements for state and federal recognition, etc.). Decades of disagreement can be intimidating to new researchers but, after (somewhat) exhaustive research, I have seen nothing to suggest that these issues are insurmountable.