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NEWS | Dec. 14, 2020

NSWCDD Welcomes Pamunkey Indian Tribe Chief in Observance of NAIAN Heritage Month

By NSWC Dahlgren Division Corporate Communications

DAHLGREN, Va. – In observance of National American Indian and Alaskan Native (NAIAN) Heritage Month, Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) invited Chief Robert Gray of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe to be the keynote speaker for the heritage event on Nov. 30. The event was livestreamed via Microsoft Teams and provided the opportunity to discuss, educate and reflect on the history and future of Native American culture, tradition and forward progression.

The event’s moderator, Michael Brown — Computing Integration and Analysis Branch head at the NSWCDD Strategic and Computing System’s Department — serves as the NAIAN Special Emphasis Program Manager (SEPM).

Brown provided a brief history of the month-long observance, first proposed in 1990, during the administration of President George W. Bush. A joint resolution approval declared November as Native American Heritage Month. Since 1994, a variation of the observance name was used and is now more commonly referred to as National American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month.

“After 100 years of efforts to recognize American Indians, National American Indian and Alaskan Native Heritage Month celebrates native cultures and serves to educate the public on the heritage, history, art and traditions of all Native Americans,” Brown told his audience of military, government and contractor personnel.

Brown, a member of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia, introduced NSWCDD Commanding Officer Capt. Casey Plew, who provided welcoming remarks.  

In continuing with this year’s observance theme, ’Honoring the Past, Securing the Future’, Plew said that “it’s a great privilege to connect and reflect on the diverse cultures, traditions and histories of Native American Indians and Alaskan Natives, who have been instrumental in establishing our nation.”

Plew emphasized the many contributions of American Indians, Alaskan Natives and Native Hawaiians on the battlefield throughout U.S. history as part of the 75th anniversary commemorating the end of World War II.

More than 15,000 U.S. Navy Sailors with Native American Indian or Alaskan Native heritage currently serve as active duty, reserve, and civilian members in the Navy’s total force. “In defense of their homeland and in reverence of their ancestors, Native Americans have truly Honored our Past and Secured our Future,” said Plew.

The NSWCDD commanding officer proceeded to invite Brown to the virtual podium to introduce the honorary Chief Robert Gray to speak on behalf of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe. Gray has been in the leadership role since August 2015 after serving on the Pamunkey Tribal Council for 25 years.

Gray served six years in the U.S. Air Force, and afterwards, earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Central Arkansas. He worked in a civilian capacity with the U.S. Air Force at Joint Base Langley-Eustis and the National Guard Bureau at Joint Base Andrews. He retired from military service in the Virginia Air National Guard after 32 years and his federal service spans 38 years.

During the observance commemoration, Gray conveyed a wealth of historical knowledge and a talent for storytelling. He began discussing the rich history of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe and immediately engaged the audience.

Gray commented on the importance of the surrounding land and the conflicts that ensued during the 17th century. “The English arrive in 1607 and conflict erupts almost immediately,” he said. 

Gray spoke of the various Anglo Powhatan wars that persisted from 1610 to 1644. After decades of negotiating land boundaries with England, Gray explained the purpose of establishing the Treaty of Peace in 1646. The treaty proclaimed that Native Americans were under the jurisdiction of the English crown and were to provide an annual tribute to the governor of Virginia in the form of game. The Pamunkey Indian Tribe continues this tradition to this day.

Gray continued to captivate the audience with interesting facts and challenges the tribe experienced. He shared anecdotes of the many military contributions of the Pamunkey people from the 18th to the early 20th century.  They fought stateside in numerous wars, from the Revolutionary War and Civil War to the many conflicts in the nation’s more recent history.

Gray continued forward and discussed the hardships and discrimination Native Americans faced during the turn of the century. He revealed the tribe’s struggles and challenges for political representation and racial justice.

Gray shared his own family history and personal experiences. He mentioned his grandparents’ immigration from life on the Pamunkey Indian Tribe reservation in Virginia to relocating to Philadelphia due to racial tensions in the 1920s.

Gray discussed the change in social acceptance of Native Americans that took place during the civil rights movement in the 1960s. He noted that during this time, the Pamunkey people became more involved in establishing representation, financially and politically. “For the reminder of the 20th century, we see this continued reawakening of the Pamunkey tribe advocating for various constitutional rights and representation.”

Moving into the 21st century, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe continued to advocate for federal recognition and was granted final approval in 2015. According to Gray, this federal status meant that the Tribal Nations were acknowledged as their own sovereignty.

In further discussing the tribe’s current circumstances, Gray indicated that “to obtain true sovereignty the tribe must achieve economic independence from federal programs.”

Gray spoke of the tribe’s sustainable growth opportunities, including the farming and gaming developments. The Pamunkey Fish Hatchery was established in 1912 for the purpose of replenishing local shad populations. The hatchery is still operating today and provides job opportunities for tribal members.

He proposed various solutions for achieving this goal. The lead contenders are Federal 8A Contracting, which gives preference for Tribal Nations to bid on federal contracts, and commercial business opportunities, particularly casino ownership.  

Gray expressed his optimism for the tribe’s economic growth by disclosing the projected plan to own and operate a casino in Norfolk, Va. “The Pamunkey Tribe believes that with our 8A status and approval for our Norfolk casino, we have laid the groundwork for future economic independence and support tribal financial stability for generations to come,” said Gray. He then acknowledged the accomplishments and the great strides that Native Americans and, specifically, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe have achieved.

The NAIAN observance commemoration provided the opportunity for Gray to educate, express, and impart the historical relevance and the impactful contributions of Pamunkey Indian Tribe. “We are grateful today to Chief Gray for his leadership and insights into the dynamic Pamunkey Indian Tribe,” said Plew who proceeded to present Gray with the distinguished NSWCDD coin.