An aerial view of the James River next to a field and line of trees
The Chickahominy Indian Tribe's recently re-acquired Mamanahunt ancestral lands is the focus of one of the VCU Rice Rivers Center projects. (Photo courtesy of the Chickahominy Tribe.)

VCU Rice Rivers Center provides environmental expertise to Pamunkey, Chickahominy Tribes to help protect their lands

Two new projects will emphasize research, training and emerging technologies to support critical Tribal efforts.

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The Virginia Commonwealth University Rice Rivers Center has long interacted with Tribal nations located in Virginia. Stephen R. Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, has served on the center’s board for 15 years, and he traveled to England with a Rice Rivers Center researcher to share their findings about restoring sturgeon to the James River. And Rice Rivers Center faculty have over the years provided advice to Tribes on environmental projects such as how to control invasive plants.

Now, the Rice Rivers Center is engaging with the federally recognized Chickahominy and Pamunkey Tribes at a new level, conducting two major projects in which it is dedicating the center’s resources and expertise in support of the Tribes’ work to protect and preserve their ancestral lands.

“In both cases, they have these amazing properties and they want to provide the very best stewardship that they can,” said Greg Garman, Ph.D., director of the Rice Rivers Center, part of VCU Life Sciences. “We’re helping provide them with capacity and training in some technologies. And although we’re in this for the long term, our goal is to help them stand up their own internal environmental management programs and then continue to act in an advisory capacity.”

An emphasis on water quality

For the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, the Rice Rivers Center is working with the U.S. Geological Survey to identify critical water resources — and threats to those resources, such as sea level rise and invasive species — for the Tribe’s reservation, a 1,200-acre area located on a bend of the Pamunkey River in King William County.

“One of the things we’re doing is looking at all of the available scientific research that’s been done on that river and on areas around the reservation, trying to find what we know and then find out where there are gaps, things that we don’t know, where future research can be conducted,” said Ed Crawford, Ph.D., deputy director of the Rice Rivers Center. “At the same time, we’re trying to help them with management of their lands, of their wetlands, of their uplands and their riparian habitat.”

The project will result in delivery of a technical report, which the Pamunkey will be able to use to leverage future potential funding avenues to address issues identified in the report. The project will also produce a “story map,” which will use visually rich pictures, data and text to illustrate the reservation’s critical water resources and threats, with the goal of supporting future efforts to manage the property.

Pamunkey Indian Tribe Chief Robert Gray said the project will be a key step in protecting the reservation’s aquatic resources.

“Our reservation is almost completely surrounded by the Pamunkey River and then the various wetlands, marshes, and swamp area, between our land and the river, and so the water is a big concern for us, and probably more so with the climate change and sea level rise. We’re already fairly low,” Gray said. “Everyone here on the reservation is on well and septic systems. So the quality of our water is an issue [especially because] we’re all drinking groundwater.”

John D. Jastram, chief of the Watershed Studies Section of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Virginia and West Virginia Water Science Center in Richmond, said the U.S.G.S. is “pleased to be collaborating with VCU’s Rice Rivers Center on this important work for the Pamunkey Tribe.”

“Leveraging our organization’s complementary expertise allows us to combine science with Tribal knowledge in unique ways,” he said. “We expect the outcomes will assist our Tribal partners as they continue to advance their stewardship of Tribal waters and related resources.”

As part of the project, the Rice Rivers Center has been conducting interviews with elders in the Pamunkey Indian Tribe to include their on-the-ground traditional knowledge in the technical report and story map.

Ron Lopez, a VCU Rice Rivers Center faculty member and award-winning filmmaker, has been recording the interviews.

“One woman [we interviewed] described how in the past there was an abundance of freshwater mussels on the riverbed on the eastern side of the property. She knew that because she used to go digging there for a specific type of clay that they would use to make blackware pottery,” Lopez said. “She recalled that when she was younger there were freshwater mussels there. Now there are none. Freshwater mussels are really important to the ecosystem; not only do they filter water and clean the water, but their presence is also a really good indicator of water quality.”

Gray said the elders have observed the land for decades, witnessing firsthand how the “land is basically shrinking.”

“We want the opportunity to be able to capture those stories and what they know about the past so that maybe we can project out and have a have a timeline on the sea level rise [and] when we can expect it to be a serious problem,” he said.

An analysis of Mamanahunt

The project for the Chickahominy Indian Tribe is an environmental analysis of its recently re-acquired ancestral property called Mamanahunt, located in the lower Chickahominy River watershed in Charles City County.

A large part of the property is tidal forested wetland with some pockets of tidal freshwater marsh. Mamanahunt is culturally significant to the Tribe because it is one of several village sites along the Chickahominy River where they were located when Jamestown settlers first visited in 1607.

The project will take a multipronged approach, involving drones, LIDAR and other technology to study the property.

“We’re going to help the Tribe figure out what exactly they have, what’s there? What types of species do they have in their forested wetland? What types of species do they have in their marshes? What’s in their uplands? We’re doing avian surveys. We’ll be doing vegetation surveys,” Crawford said.

As part of the project, the researchers will provide training in emerging technology, such as remote sensing applications, geodetic surveys and more, for adults and middle and high school students in the Chickahominy Indian Tribe.

“We are going to be doing training, using emerging technologies with hopefully middle school and high school students and then any adults who are interested in learning. We’re going to provide them with and empower them with knowledge and technology that will make them better stewards of their property and help them be informed to make better decisions about which direction to go in the future to help preserve their resources,” Crawford said.

The project for the Chickahominy Tribe is supported by Waste Management. The company said it is excited to work with the Rice Rivers Center and that the project aligns with its core value of taking care of the environment.

“We are proud to have a relationship with the VCU Rice Rivers Center to help them facilitate the project on the Chickahominy River,” said Brian McClung, WM Charles City County landfill senior district manager. “As a company that is always working for a sustainable tomorrow, our site has a long history of supporting our community and environmental stewardship projects through collaboration, community engagement, and environmental projects.”

Crawford said he is looking forward to the opportunity to provide training to young people in the Chickahominy Tribe in environmental science.

“I’m excited about the opportunity to work with the middle school and potentially high school students to show them what we do as scientists, and hopefully inspire them to maybe want to go into science and become an environmental scientist or an ecologist or a conservation biologist,” he said.