Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe (E-130)

State recognized in 1965. Descendants of Saponi, Nansemond, and others reorganized in 1953. A tribal school est. 2000.

Location: Haliwa-Saponi Tribal Headquarters, 39021 NC Hwy 561, Hollister, NC
County: Halifax
Original Date Cast: 2023

The Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe is a confederated Tribe that is a political successor to the historical Saponi Nation and to the Nansemond and affiliated Tribes that inhabited the Piedmont and coastal regions of what are now Virginia and North Carolina. These tribes came together for protection on the North Carolina-Virginia border hundreds of years ago due to colonial entanglements and settled in the area known locally as the Meadows of Halifax, Warren and adjoining counties. “Haliwa” is a geographical designation derived from the physical location of the Tribe, which is primarily in Halifax and Warren Counties, North Carolina.

The Saponi Nation or Saponi are a Siouan-speaking people originating from the Piedmont area of Virginia and North Carolina. They have cultural, historical, and kinship ties to the Tutelo and other allied tribes. In 1733 the Saponi Nation made peace with the Tuscarora and moved to a portion of the Tuscarora Reservation in modern Bertie County, North Carolina, occupying a village known as Sapona Town. In 1754 Captain William Hurst observed the residence of Saponi warriors and many women and children on Colonel William Eaton’s lands in the Granville District (modern Granville, Warren, and Vance Counties, North Carolina). In 1761, the Saponi Indians were living on 10,000 acres of land in the Granville District on and near the Roanoke River with the Meherrin and Tuscarora.

The Nansemond Indian Nation or Nansemond Tribe are an Algonquian-speaking people originating in the Tidewater area of Virginia near Suffolk. Over 80% of enrolled Haliwa-Saponi tribal citizens can be traced through genealogy and geography to the Nansemond that migrated west and south of the original territories and eventually settled in the Meadows. After the American Revolution (1775-1783), the Nansemond, Saponi, and other allied tribes merged for mutual protection and survival in Halifax, Warren, Nash, and Franklin Counties. The Tribe has continually existed as a separate community, with leaders exhibiting clear political authority and influence.

During the early 1800s these Indian descendants remained in the Meadows area and tried not to make waves, especially during an era of government policies to remove all Indians living east of the Mississippi River. In 1835 North Carolina amended its constitution and barred people of color from voting and participating in the government. Many Haliwa-Saponi families reacted by migrating to areas north and west such as Chillicothe, Ohio, which had more favorable laws for non-white peoples. Other families chose to continue their lives in the Meadows. Several families migrated out to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) on their own, some merging into the general population, while others were adopted by one of the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma. Over the course of the 1800s Indians are noted several times in Halifax, Warren, Franklin, and Nash County records and other papers indicate a tight-knit, Indian community.

The Haliwa-Saponi spent the late 1800s attempting to organize its tribal government and fighting for separate Indian schools. In the 1870s the Haliwa-Saponi began meeting at Silver Hill, which is a remote location within the Meadows. These early efforts at formal organization resulted in the Bethlehem School (1882) and the Secret Hill School. In 1889, James Mooney of the Bureau of American Ethnology undertook a survey of eastern American Indians that included the Meadows Indians. But because he did not visit the community and perform ethnographic and historic research, scholarship about the Meadows Indians had to wait another fifty years. Gideon Branch Alston, a resident of Warren County, responded to Mooney and observed in Halifax County, North Carolina “a settlement of half-breed Indians numbering 3 to 5 hundred in a poor district called the meadows – Fine formed with straight black hair. Fond of intermarrying.” In 1896 under the leadership of Alfred Richardson, Jr., Dudley Lynch, Cofield Richardson, T.P. Lynch, Gordon Solomon Hedgepeth, and others, 300 Meadows Indians applied to the Dawes Commission for membership in Five Civilized Tribes. Though unsuccessful the effort demonstrated an organized effort to gain recognition and a separate racial and political status. These leaders tried to formally re-organize the tribe but found great opposition and little support because many Indians were simply afraid of the backlash, they would face from asserting a separate status.

Finally, during the World War II-era, tribal leaders took up the mantle to organize the Indian people and gain recognition of their birthright. With the help of Lumbee Indians of Robeson County who had already asserted their separate Indian identity and status years before, the Essex Indian Club was organized under the leadership of John C. Hedgepeth, Lonnie Richardson, B.B. Richardson, Percy Richardson, Chief Jerry Richardson, James Mills, Randolph Green, Willie Garland Richardson, and others by 1953. Renamed the Haliwa Indian Club, the organization is the direct predecessor of the contemporary tribal government. Around 1953 W.R. Richardson moved back home to the community after spending numerous years in Philadelphia and was elected Chief of the Haliwa-Saponi Indian Tribe. Mr. Percy Richardson served as Vice-Chief for several years.

In 1957, the tribe established the Haliwa Indian School and the Saponi Indian Baptist Church (renamed the Mount Bethel Indian Baptist Church) in 1958. From 1957-1969, the Haliwa-Saponi maintained and operated the Haliwa Indian School, which was the only non-reservation, tribally supported school in the state; in other words, tribal members paid for supplies and materials, the building, maintenance, and teachers out of their own pockets. During the years of operation, those that attended the school were shielded from the ridicule, taunting, and prejudice from non-Indian students. To this day, the Haliwa Indian School stands as a symbol of the tribe’s struggle and success. In 1961 tribal leaders, including Chief W.R. Richardson, Bill McGee, Reverend C.H. Richardson, and others joined the Red Power Movement for Native American Rights through the American Indian Chicago Conference. These efforts propelled the tribe to seek recognition as an Indian Tribe and on April 15, 1965, the State of North Carolina formally recognized the Haliwa Indians. With help from the Chickahominy Indians of Virginia the tribe celebrated its recognition with an annual powwow. The tribe became incorporated in 1974 and added Saponi to its tribal name in 1979 to reflect historical origins of the people. The tribe has since built an administrative building, multipurpose building, and instituted various service programs. Programs include tribal housing, daycare, senior citizens program, community services, Workforce Investment Act, cultural retention, youth programs, and economic development.

Federal recognition through the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Branch of Acknowledgement and Research (BAR) or through the United States Congress remains a top priority of the tribe. The tribe submitted a formal petition in 1989 and had a bill introduced by Congressman G.K. Butterfield in December 2022.

Bass Family Bible Record, Norfolk County, 1613–1699. Accession 26371, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.
Brewington, C.D. The Five Civilized Tribes of Eastern North Carolina. Clinton: Bass Publishing Company, 1959.
Executive Journals of the Council of Colonial Virginia (1928-1930), Vol. 4, p. 303, 13 June 1733.
“Haliwas Begin Hollister Church.” Daily Herald (Roanoke Rapids N.C.), 10 April 1958.
Jones, Bignall. "The Haliwars: Tribe of Mystery." The News and Observer, 29 January 1956.
Lynch, Robert. “Red Roots: ‘The Meadows.’” in Leslie H. Garner, Jr. and Arthur Mann Kaye, eds. The Coastal Plains: Writings on the Cultures of Eastern North Carolina. North Carolina Wesleyan College Press, 1989. 63-80.

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