May 19, 2015

Virginia Indians struggle for federal recognition


Virginia’s original inhabitants are seeking formal recognition from the federal government, but they face opposition from casino interests and other groups.

The Pamunkey, whose most famous member was Pocahontas, and other Native American tribes in Virginia want federal recognition that would open the door for housing, education and other financial assistance.


The casino giant MGM, which is building a gaming resort on the Maryland side of Washington, D.C.’s National Harbor, is urging the federal government not to recognize the Virginia tribes. MGM has raised several objections, including accusations that the tribes have been racist and sexist.

However, Native Americans say the real reason for MGM’s opposition is that the company fears that federal recognition would allow Native Americans to open competing casinos in Virginia. (The Virginia tribes have not expressed interest in doing so.)

“It’s pretty infuriating to me – in a way, it’s insulting – because they think that’s the only reason a tribe wants to be recognized is for casinos,” said Wayne Adkins, an assistant chief of the Chickahominy tribe.

11 tribes recognized by Virginia

The commonwealth of Virginia recognizes 11 tribes: the Mattaponi, Upper Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock, Nansemond, Monacan, Cheroenhaka, Nottoway and Patawomeck. Six were approved by the General Assembly in 1983; the others were added by legislation since then.

None of those tribes are recognized by the U.S. government. There are 566 federally recognized tribes.

A tribe can obtain recognition from the U.S. Congress or from the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Pamunkey tribe applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency is expected to decide by the end of July.

Six Virginia tribes have formed a coalition to seek recognition from Congress. The Virginia Indian Tribe Alliance for Life includes the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monacan, Nansemond, Upper Mattaponi and Rappahannock tribes. (Initially, the Pamunkey tribe also was a member of VITAL.)

Adkins is president of the alliance. With federal recognition, a tribe is treated like a separate nation with a level of self-governance. It also is eligible for funding and services from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“That whole congressional process is just a whole other ball game itself. It’s completely different than state recognition,” Adkins said. “I’m hoping that the Pamunkey will get their federal recognition; they’d be the first in Virginia to get it.”

The importance of federal recognition

The Pamunkey were among the indigenous tribes to come in contact with the first wave of English settlers in the early 17th century.

“The Virginia Indian tribes have played an integral role in our Commonwealth’s and our country’s history, and it is a grave injustice that the federal government has failed to grant them federal recognition,” said U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. He is co-sponsoring legislation to award federal designation to the six tribes represented by VITAL.

U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, a Republican who represents Virginia’s 1st Congressional District, also is a sponsor of the legislation.

“The history of these tribes is intertwined with the birth of our nation, and their federal recognition status is long overdue,” Wittman said. “I’m proud to work with the Virginia tribes to ensure that they are granted the recognition that they have been denied for far too long.”

To obtain federal recognition, a tribe must show that it has existed as a community since at least 1900, that its members can trace their lineage to the historical group and that it exercises political influence or authority over its members.

Virginia Indians face extra hurdles in meeting those requirements.

For one thing, the Virginia tribes lack formal treaties with the U.S. government because they made peace with England well before the establishment of the United States.

Moreover, the Virginia Indians were victims of what some call a “paper genocide”: In 1924, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act, which destroyed birth records, marriage certificates and land titles of Virginia’s tribes.

At the time, the registrar overseeing Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics was Walter Plecker, a white supremacist intent on preventing interracial breeding. Seeking to purify the white race in Virginia, he forced Indians and other nonwhites to classify themselves as blacks.

“Through his campaign of racial classification, Plecker denied the Virginia American Indians their inherent birthright by removing the category of ‘Indian’ from birth and marriage records,” according to the VITAL website.

Gregory Smithers, an associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University, said tribes that receive federal recognition enjoy certain benefits.

“They’re not going to get rich from becoming federally recognized, but there are federal annuities that are administered through the Department of Interior,” Smithers said. “Leaders of those tribes then have the responsibility of allocating those funds to things like health care services, schools, the maintenance of roads and basic infrastructure.”

Some tribes have used their federal designation to open casinos. The legislation sponsored by Kaine and Wittman would explicitly prohibit the Virginia tribes from offering gambling. In March, the bill won approval from the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee. It is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.

Meanwhile, the staff of the Bureau of Indian Affairs said it believes the Pamunkey tribe meets the criteria for federal recognition. The bureau was supposed to act on the tribe’s application by March 31 but delayed its decision because of questions and objections raised by opponents of federal recognition.

The objections to the Pamunkey petition

The objections to the Pamunkey petition for federal recognition are laid out in documents filed last year with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Companies that sell gasoline and cigarettes, for example, complained that federal recognition would allow the tribes to sell those products without collecting state taxes.

MGM National Harbor, a $1.2 billion facility scheduled to open in 2016, filed its comments jointly with a group called Stand Up for California.

They questioned whether the people who today call themselves Pamunkey Indians truly descended from the tribe that interacted with Capt. James Smith at Jamestown in 1607. There are big gaps in Pamunkey history, and at times the Pamunkey mixed with other tribes and with non-Indians, the opposing statement said.

This information “undermines (the bureau’s) conclusions regarding descent from historical members of the Pamunkey tribe,” the document said.

It also raises questions about discriminatory practices by the Pamunkey. The tribe had rules to “prohibit members from marrying African-Americans” and “prohibit women members from marrying non-Pamunkey men, from voting, and from holding office,” according to MGM and Stand Up.

Because of such practices, the NAACP and the Congressional Black Caucus also have objected to federal recognition for the Pamunkey.

“Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are upset at the thought of federal recognition and potentially federal revenue going to a tribe with a deep history of what they perceive as racism,” Smithers said.

He said rules against mixed marriages by Virginia Indian tribes should be viewed in the historical context of Jim Crow laws of the late 19th and early 20th century.

“This is not in any way to sort of excuse the Pamunkey’s kind of exclusionary law. It is more to sort of explain the decisions that they made in this highly charged racial context,” Smithers said. “And the legacy of this stuff is coming out in the open with their case for federal recognition.”

Virginia Indian Tribes
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