West Virginia has an abundance of diversity not only with its flora but also with the people that live there. In the midst of this diverse state, there exists an “invisible” population of American Indians which comprises over 11,000 members and is represented by 85 tribal lineages, with Cherokee and Shawnee being the largest. Both the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia (AAIWV) and the National American Indian Federation (NAIF) currently have three bills in legislation (HB2779, SB377 and SB406) which would provide long overdue statutory recognition for both populations.
One major issue that the two Indian communities have to deal with while seeking state recognition is the official state position, which has been accepted for many years, that West Virginia was only a “hunting ground” and that there were no Indigenous Peoples living in the area when the white settlers came. However, there is significant historical evidence to refute this idea. The history of the American Indian communities in the state pre-dates the settlers. Prior to 1830, the land claims of the Cherokee and Shawnee were divided by the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers and extended into what is present-day West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio.
In 1830, the Indian Removal Act was passed calling for the relocation of all tribes to “Indian Territory” west of the Mississippi River. Under the terms of the act, individuals were allowed to stay in their homes if they gave up all tribal claims and allegiance and agreed to become citizens of the states they lived in. The Treaty of 1832 called for the removal of all Shawnee to the west. The US government sent troops to forcibly remove Indians from Ohio and the Ohio River Valley, if necessary. Some Shawnee families broke away from Chief Blue Jacket’s group headed west and came into West Virginia south of the Kanawha and into Kentucky hiding among the Cherokee who still lived in the area. Some stayed with “mixed blood” relatives who were a significant part of the population. Although the major Cherokee centers at this time were in Tennessee, northern Georgia and Arkansas, some families broke with the main Cherokee body and moved back into the hills of the Carolinas and Virginia (now West Virginia). Many “mixed-blood” families of Cherokee, Shawnee, and English/Scots/Irish heritage were formed at this time.
The Treaty of New Echota was signed in 1835 selling all Cherokee Tribal lands east of the Mississippi to the US government. This treaty, however, was signed by a small group of Cherokee making it a violation of Cherokee Law under which the sale of Tribal Land without Tribal approval was a capital offense. Most of the treaty party members were subsequently killed by Cherokee vigilantes igniting a civil war among the Cherokees in “Indian Territory”.
Dring The Trail of Tears from 1837-1839, federal troops under General Winfield Scott rounded up all the Cherokee in Tennessee, Georgia and the Carolinas. Some of the Cherokee under Chief Yonaguska (Drowning Bear) resisted and went into hiding in the hills. The Cherokee in North Carolina were later given amnesty by Winfield Scott and live there on the “Quallah Boundary” to this day as the Eastern Band Cherokee. Cherokee and Shawnee living in Virginia and Kentucky were not moved at this time because Winfield Scott did not have enough troops for removing this small number of people living on land most white settlers did not want. Thousands of those traveling the Trail of Tears died along the trail of starvation, disease and exposure. Estimates of the total deaths from this forced march range from one-in-four to one-in-three.
West Virginia was founded after the Civil War broke out in 1863. West Virginia was officially a “segregated state” with racial lists of all inhabitants. Many Native Americans and “mixed blood” families were identified as “white” or “colored” on the census. “Indians” by law did not exist and it was not legal to register a child as “Indian” at birth.
In 1890, documentation by the American Bureau of Ethnography and the US Census places “pocket communities” in Logan, Mingo, Summers, Monroe, Greenbriar, Clay and Fayette counties. There were also Shawnee living in these communities as well as in Mason County. Also, a few Eastern Blackfoot were located in Roane County. The largest Shawnee community appears to have been on the Little Kanawha River.
Between the 1940s and 1970s, the federal government’s attitude was to relocate the youth from the western reservations to the cities and other parts of the country for employment. Families of many different tribal lineages settled in Kentucky, Virginia and Ohio.
Following the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the West Virginia Legislature passed state laws which fully enfranchised all citizens. It was once again legal for American Indians to own land and to claim American Indian ancestry on birth records. In 1989, the Appalachian American Indian Society was formed. This subsequently became the Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia.
In addition to addressing historic wrongs, the passage of these bills (HB2779, SB377 and SB406) will have significant economic benefits to the State of West Virginia and to the members of the AAIWV and NAIF. Recognizing the Native American Tribes in the state can also lead to additional cultural and educational opportunities and an increase in tourism. It will surely be a WIN for West Virginia and all Indigenous Peoples!