Tribal land in Virginia was returned to the Rappahannock Tribe during a celebration hosted by the Department of the Interior Friday.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland joined the Rappahannock Tribe, Chesapeake Conservancy and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in honor of the tribe's historic reacquisition of roughly 465 acres at Fones Cliffs.
"The Department is honored to join the Rappahannock Tribe in co-stewardship of this portion of their ancestral homeland. We look forward to drawing upon Tribal expertise and Indigenous knowledge in helping manage the area's wildlife and habitat," Haaland said in a statement. "This historic reacquisition underscores how Tribes, private landowners, and other stakeholders all play a central role in this Administration's work to ensure our conservation efforts are locally led and support communities' health and well-being."
The Fones Cliffs lie on the eastern side of the Rappahannock River and are located within the authorized boundary of the Rappahannock River Valley National Wildlife Refuge.
Fones Cliffs is not only the ancestral land of the tribe, but also an important region for resident and migratory bald eagles and other birds. It's home to one of the largest nesting populations of bald eagles on the Atlantic coast.
"Threatened by development for decades, this 'crown jewel' of Virginia has immense significance, not only for the surrounding environment but for American history," the Conservation Fund's website states.
The Fones Cliffs are the site where Capt. John Smith and his crew were ambushed by Rappahannock Tribe members, according to the organization.
Smith's ships continued their journey unharmed, but the fund states that the Fones Cliffs are a reminder of the tribe's dedication to preserving its land.
The land will remain publicly accessible and will be given to the Rappahannock Tribe with a permanent conservation easement that legally limits the use of the sacred land for conservation efforts.
The tribe plans to create trails and a replica 16th-century village to educate visitors about Rappahannock history and conservation efforts, as well as train tribal youth in traditional river knowledge, according to the Department of the Interior.
The news comes just as the Virginia state legislature passed a bill to create the Virginia Black, Indigenous and People of Color Historic Preservation Fund.
The fund would award grant money to recognized tribes and nonprofit organizations to acquire and preserve land that is of cultural or historic significance to Black and Indigenous communities, as well as other communities of color.
The legislation is now awaiting Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin's signature.