In West Virginia, the contemporary Native American population can best be described as a statewide community, consisting of a far-reaching network of individuals with Native American ancestry. There are approximately 3000 Native Americans in West Virginia. The community includes individuals from at least 43 different bloodlines and tribal associations. These are descendants from the regional Native Americans, including Cherokee and Shawnee, and individuals who more recently relocated to West Virginia from throughout North America. Many people in West Virginia have Native American blood, but do not have a historical tribal association, and many individuals have mixed blood, that is, ancestry of different tribes as well as different races in addition to Native American.
Historically, numerous tribes traveled through the state, and many individuals escaped into West Virginia to avoid persecution and forced migration. The diverse indigenous peoples of this part of the country are sometimes collectively called the Eastern Woodland Indians. This name refers to a regional group rather than a single tribe in the traditional sense, and it reflects numerous different bloodlines in West Virginia and neighboring states. One of the names used within the Native American community to identify both the historical regional group and the contemporary tribe is Ani, which means "all one people." (This name has recently been officially adopted by West Virginia's largest Native American organization.) Some also refer to the regional group as the Appalachian Tribe. Historically, West Virginia was home and hunting territory to Shawnee, Cherokee, Delaware, Seneca, Wyandot, Ottawa, Tuscarora, Susquehannock, Huron, Sioux, Mingo, Iroquois, and other tribes. Many individuals in the state have this heritage. Other tribes and groups represented in the contemporary community include Lakota, Blackfoot, Apache, Navaho, Choctaw, Cree, and Aztec. Members of these traditional tribes maintain a distinct sense of identity, but are also part of the larger statewide tribe.
The contemporary community reflects those who are finding new pride in their native heritage, and Native Americans who are newcomers to this area and who represent the pan-Indian community. The Native American community has struggled with oppression, imposed disruption, and insecurity since the arrival of European settlers in West Virginia. Individuals were being shipped away to Oklahoma reservations as late as the 1950s. As recently as 1964, it was illegal for a Native American to own property in West Virginia. In spite of these hardships, vestiges of communities survived and their heritage is re-emerging with renewed pride.
There are numerous elders in the state who offer guidance for the community and are the bearers of older traditions, including traditional crafts and oral history. A strong reverence and protection of the elders is common among Native American communities, and this is particularly true in West Virginia.
Numerous individuals in the Native American community are involved in outreach activities, including presentations at schools. These presentations usually include song, dance, and other Native Americans heritage traditions. One strong tradition in the Native American community is narrative or storytelling.
Traditional arts and crafts are practiced widely in the Native American community, and numerous skills have direct links with the past through the older generations. A common understanding is that the traditions cannot be bought or sold; therefore, Native American craftspersons in general do not attempt to commercialize their work.
Recent interest has brought a revival and widespread adoption of the traditional Navaho powwow. There are currently numerous powwows throughout West Virginia which serve to bring the statewide community together with the nationwide community of Native Americans. In general, these events represent a pan-Indian community more so than a regional community. Distinct tribal traditions are maintained and presented at some regional powwows, and the local Native American community presence can be felt. These events are diverse, and programming is largely the decision of the local organizers. The strong craft tradition of the Native American people is well represented at powwows, as is social music and dance. Opinions differ within the Native American community regarding the authenticity of these events. Some consider powwows to be very traditional, and some powwows are in fact more strict in their presentation of traditions than others, placing less emphasis on entertainment. In some opinions, powwows can play a negative role because they serve to homogenize Native American culture; however others accept them simply as one of the many ways to unite and promote the Native American community.
There have been several recent attempts to bring Native Americans together in West Virginia. Currently, there are several organizations of Native Americans which are concerned with promoting heritage and unity, and protecting the rights of West Virginia Native Americans.
The Appalachian American Indians of West Virginia (AAIWV) has approximately 4,800 members, and represents 80 different blood lines. There are four regional gatherings of AAIWV: in Delbarton (Mingo County), in Alderson (Greenbrier County), in Lumberport (Harrison County), and in Charleston (Kanawha County). There is also a monthly statewide meeting held in Summersville (Nicholas County). The organization is involved in the promotion of Native American interests at all levels in the community, including human rights issues, public awareness, education and outreach, social activities, festivals, spiritual retreats, and powwows. More information is available at http://aaiwv-ani.org/
Wayne Gray Owl Appleton, Ph.D.
Rt 1 Box 271
Lesage, WV 25537
West Virginia Native American Coalition, Inc. (WVNAMCO), a community and nonprofit organization, has approximately 65 members. Started in 1987, this group has been concerned with major issues and abuses involving Native Americans, including exploitation of cultural sites artifacts, the proliferation of incorrect information, and similar issues. They have also worked on civil rights and environmental issues, including the loss of native flora and fauna which Native American people depend upon to practice their traditional cultures. They have get-togethers, and put out flyers, newspapers, and educational materials about Native American culture.
P.O. Box 62
Fairview, WV 26570
The Organization for Native American Interests, ONAI, is an organization at West Virginia University in Morgantown. The group mainly consists of West Virginia University students and works closely with regional Native American groups. ONAI hosts the American Indian Heritage Festival and many other education events.
Dept. Of English
P.O. Box 6296
Morgantown, WV 26506-6296
293-3107 ext. 405 (w)
The Native American Indian Federation, Inc., (NAIF) of Huntington, was organized in 2001 and was recognized by a state senate resolution in early 2002. It is an intertribal group focused on assisting federally and non-federally recognized Native Americans within the state and preserving their history and traditions. The group claims an in-state membership in excess of 4,500 persons with regional membership in excess of 6,000. Activities include operating a food bank, providing economic assistance to needy families, sponsoring community education efforts, serving as a clearinghouse for Native American information and maintaining an extensive library. Their plans include the development of a local Native American Cultural Center and Museum.
4404 Riverside Drive
Huntington, WV 25705
Editor’s note: Due to centuries of cultural repression, the Native American presence in West Virginia is particularly difficult to define and appreciate. Many knowledgeable and dedicated individuals across the state are devoted to researching this community and its heritage, however. Thanks to them, more is understood today about Native Americans in West Virginia than at any point in our state’s history.
Additional information can be found under Metro Valley, Mid-Ohio Valley, Mountaineer Country, and New River/Greenbrier Valley.
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