Keith Anderson, R’89, principal chief of the Nansemond Indian Nation

A heritage reclaimed

March 7, 2023


The sun was shining, the temperature was perfect, and Keith Anderson, R’89, had a beautiful view of the Nansemond River. On an emotional day for the Nansemond Indian Nation, Anderson, the tribe’s principal chief since 2021, participated in a ceremony for the re-acquisition of 500 acres of ancestral land in Suffolk, Virginia.

The Nansemond Indian Nation is one of seven federally recognized tribes in Virginia, and it has more than 500 citizens. As chief, Anderson commits himself to honoring and preserving American Indian traditions and sharing his tribe’s culture with the public. He and other members of the nation do this through cultural outreach, including a dance troupe, and efforts to shape what Virginia’s students learn about the commonwealth’s Native American history and societies today.

“We are making a combined effort to ensure that we are visible, that our tribes are featured, and that history is told the way it should be,” he said.

Anderson, left, at the signing ceremony returning 500 acres of ancestral lands to the Nansemond Indian Nation; photo by Pamela D'Angelo

The process of re-acquiring ancestral lands is a good example of Anderson’s desire to advance Nansemond interests through cooperative efforts. It began when the family that owned Cross Swamp, the site of these lands, contacted Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit organization dedicated to conserving waterfowl habitats, about selling and conserving the land. The organization reached out to the Virginia Outdoors Foundation, which recommended returning the lands to the Nansemond. In October 2022, the land was legally returned to the Nansemond Indian Nation in a signing ceremony.

“We can now, as kindred spirits in Virginia, continue to have programs like [the re-acquisition] and build relationships with communities of all races,” Anderson said. The nation plans to build an educational facility and share its re-acquired land with the public to foster understanding of Nansemond culture and traditions.

Anderson fulfills this goal in other ways as well. Before he became the principal chief, Anderson co-founded Red Crook-ed Sky American Indian Dance Troupe in 2006 and serves as its executive director today. The initiative originated when Anderson noticed that West Coast Native traditions were portrayed frequently in Virginia, but East Coast traditions were not. He found the lack of representation troubling because it reinforced Hollywood stereotypes of American Indians. Today, the dance troupe showcases more than 100 artists from different tribes across the country, including performers of various generations and ages. RCS has performed in more than 200 festivals and venues, including the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“We as indigenous persons are different from coast to coast,” he said. “Our vast assortment of tribal presenters is a living testament to the world that we’re just as diverse as other cultures.”

While outreach such as this extends across state lines, other efforts maintain a focus on Virginia. Anderson serves as the co-chair of the Virginia Tribal Education Consortium (VTEC), which was founded in 2019. VTEC works to ensure the accurate portrayal of the history of Virginia’s tribes in Virginia’s schools and provides citizens of Virginia’s tribal community with access to educational and vocational opportunities.

Members of VTEC were active in recent public meetings hosted by the state Board of Education to receive public feedback about proposed new history standards for K-12 education that generated controversy. The proposed standards, for example, referred to Virginia’s Indigenous peoples as “America’s first immigrants.” The Board of Education rejected the new standards in November, but the debates continue about how Virginia’s history should be taught.

“There’s a very strong and hurtful narrative of Virginia Indians in Virginia,” said Anderson. “I’ve had to learn to pull myself out of that hurt and anger and look at how we can move forward. All races of people share this space in the commonwealth. Virginia is our home and very sacred to our people. None of us are going anywhere.”

Photos courtesy of Keith Anderson, R’89. Second-to-last photo, Anderson with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (center). Last photo, Anderson with U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine (second from left) and U.S. Rep. Bobby Scott (far right).