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Obama sets aside US funding with an eye on a sacred Indian site in Virginia's Tidewater

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RICHMOND, Va. - Land along the York River that archaeologists believe was the centre of a vast Indian empire before the first Europeans settled in Virginia is gaining White House attention as a possible addition to the National Park System.

President Barack Obama has set aside $6 million to acquire more than 250 acres of the former Indian village in Gloucester to achieve that goal. Congress must approve the funding in the 2015 funding proposal.

Called Werowocomoco (pronounced Wehr-oh-woh-KAHM-uh-koh), the land is believed to have been the seat of power for Powhatan.

Powhatan oversaw an empire that included 30 political divisions and 15,000 to 20,000 Indians at the time Capt. John Smith and his fellow settlers established the first permanent English settlement in North America in 1607. Some Virginia Indians have called the site "our Washington, D.C."

It is also believed to be where Pocahontas appealed to Powhatan, her father, to spare the life of Smith. That story has its share of skeptics, however. Some historians believe Smith may have misinterpreted Indian intentions or inflated his adventures in the New World.

Archaeological digs have revealed a longhouse befitting the stature of Powhatan and the outlines of ditches that experts believe delineated sacred and secular portions of Werowocomoco, also indicative of Powhatan's stature.

Archaeologists worked with descendants of Indian tribes to understand the site. Some 58 acres have already been preserved to ensure they'll never be developed.

Archaeologist Martin Gallivan helped lead a dig at the site and is working on a book on the Algonquian chiefdoms, including Powhatan. Making the site a unit of the federal park system would elevate it to the status of other important American historic destinations, such as Jamestown and Yorktown.

"I think it deserves that status given the events that occurred there in the early Colonial period and the deeper history of the Powhatans," said Gallivan, a professor of archaeology at the College of William and Mary. "If it was included in the national park system that would give the American public the chance to learn that history."

Gallivan said it's also essential that Virginia Indians be consulted, should Congress approve the funding.

The National Park Service would work closely with tribes and others on how to best interpret the site, a spokeswoman said.

"That planning would have to consider the best approach for visitor experiences while at the same time protecting the archaeological and spiritual significance of the place," spokeswoman Cindy Chance wrote in an email.

If approved, the funding would be used to purchase the land from the existing owners and for interpretive materials, such as brochures and signs.

Werowocomoco would become a stop along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. The trail charts the exploration of the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries by Smith after Europeans arrived at Jamestown in 1607.

Chance said the site has been on the park service's radar.

"Because of Werowocomo's importance to Virginia, to tribes and the NPS, the NPS has identified it as a priority for years," she wrote.

The state worked with the current landowners to ensure the 58 acres are preserved forever. Owners Bob and Lynn Ripley were paid $600,000 for the development rights.

The land, which includes the Ripley home, has been the focus of extensive archaeological digs, with the steady involvement of native representatives. Burial grounds, for instance, were left undisturbed in keeping with Indian wishes.

Gallivan said no digs are underway now, "although there's a lot more to be done at Werowocomoco."

The archaeological work that has been going on for nearly a decade is being analyzed and destined to be published, he said.


Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at .

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