American Indian Council
Indians Struggle for Recognition in Their Own Land
By Janeal Downs and Cameron Vigliano Virginia News, Capital News
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
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
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
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.
What the opponents say
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
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
“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.”
Submitted by Henrietta Wise
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