In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Chief Ken Adams, Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe.
Can you share with us your Native name and its English translation?
I do not have a separate Native name.
Where is the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe located?
Our community is in upper King William County, Virginia.
Where was your tribe originally from?
Written documentation dating to shortly after arrival of the British colonialists shows at least nine separate Indian towns on the Mattaponi River and also several other Indian towns nearby on the Pamunkey River. Late-17th-century maps indicate a large concentration of Natives on the Upper Mattaponi River in the vicinity of the present day Upper Mattaponi Tribe.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
Until the late 1800s, almost all of our people had no formal education. However, in 1892 a request was made by the local school superintendent to the Bureau of Indian Education for support of Indians in King William County. A few years later, in 1917, we built our own school—Sharon Indian School—and from that point forward we have consistently improved our conditions. Even as late as the 1960s, most tribal citizens left the Commonwealth of Virginia in order to get a high school education, and even with many obstacles many were able to graduate from high school and college.
How is your tribal government set up?
Our government consists of a chief, assistant chief, and five councilmen. Our officers are treasurer and secretary.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
I would say that in addition to elected leaders within our tribe, we have always had informal leaders, not a specific, designated entity. In the 20th century most of those leaders are connected with our church, Indian View Baptist.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
We have formal elections every four years and appointments by the chief to vacant positions.
How often does the Upper Mattaponi Tribal Council meet?
We have monthly scheduled meetings where all tribal citizens can participate. If necessary, we can also call a special meeting.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
I grew up next to and attended Sharon Indian School and Indian View Baptist Church. Along with one other Upper Mattaponi citizen, I was the first Upper Mattaponi to graduate from a public high school in King William County, in 1965. After graduation I served for 24 years in the U.S. Air Force in many positions of leadership. I received a bachelor’s degree from Southern Illinois University in 1979.
What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?
My basic responsibility is to carry out, to the best of my ability, the wishes and desires of the Upper Mattaponi people. I also maintain relationships with other tribal leaders and local, state, and federal government leaders. I am the key spokesperson for our tribe when meeting with those leaders.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
My inspiration came from my grandparents, parents, and older brothers and sisters. In difficult times they managed to persevere without complaining and worked hard to improve the lives of other Mattaponi citizens.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.