U.S. Recognition of Va. Tribes Advances
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Nearly 400 years to the day that English settlers first landed in Virginia, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill yesterday that would grant federal recognition and status as sovereign nations to six Indian tribes from the state.
The unanimous voice vote came just days after tribal chiefs danced, drummed and greeted Queen Elizabeth II on her visit to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent settlement by the English in what they called the New World.
Steve Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe, who watched from the House gallery, said it has been hard for Virginia Indians to ask for something they feel they've had for centuries. "But today is historic, that in the eyes of the federal government, they've restored our status," he said.
Adkins said the tribes, which have been recognized by the state of Virginia in recent years, want federal recognition not just for their pride and to preserve their culture but for access to housing and health grants, as well as scholarships available only to children in federally recognized tribes. Without federal recognition, he said, Virginia Indians have been "stigmatized" and seen as in "inferior" by the 562 federally recognized Indian tribes.
But, he said, tribes have had to swallow some of their pride to get this far. They have agreed to become the first federally recognized tribes to give up casino and gaming rights. Nonetheless, the House vote was held up yesterday as lawmakers engaged in a contentious debate about Indian gaming.
But tribe supporters made clear that 400 years is long enough to wait for Virginia's native inhabitants to be recognized.
U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who introduced sovereignty legislation in 2000, said that Virginia, after centuries of state-sanctioned racism and discrimination against the tribes, wants to see history's wrongs righted -- and preferably by May 14, the 400th anniversary of the day Capt. John Smith and the English settlers waded ashore to found Jamestown.
"Here we have the queen at the White House and all this pomp and circumstance, and the Indians that welcomed the settlers have not been recognized by our government," Moran said. "Today's vote is the arrowhead needed to pierce these long-standing injustices."
The bill now goes to the Senate, where it lacks a sponsor and its fate is uncertain.
Traditionally, Indian tribes seeking federal recognition and sovereignty that do not have treaties with the U.S. government must apply through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and prove, through genealogical records, continuous existence as a unique community since the time of first European contact.
The Virginia Indians' treaty dates to 1677 -- before the United States existed -- and was signed by King Charles II of England. Further, their paper history was virtually erased in the 20th century, when the state declared that there were only two races in Virginia, white or "colored." State bureaucrats changed birth, marriage and death records. Until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the law in the late 1960s, to claim to be an Indian was punishable by as much as a year in jail.
When Virginia Indian chiefs met with federal officials in 1999 to pursue recognition, Adkins said they were told that because of the lack of necessary papers, they wouldn't live to see the day they were federally recognized. Thus, they pursued the status through Congress.
Although the tribes' quest is supported by a number of Virginia lawmakers, both Republicans and Democrats, and by the state's current and past two governors, many in Congress remain concerned that recognition will lead to casinos.
U.S. Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) voted for the bill yesterday but said afterward in a news release that he hopes the Senate looks closely at it because he has "already begun hearing rumors that attorneys are being consulted about ways to overturn the limitation on tribal gambling."
Reggie Tupponce, a member of the Upper Mattaponi tribe, said: "We've given up our right to game. They said that was their concern. So I don't understand what their concern is now, other than sovereignty itself."
Early on, Adkins said, the tribes turned down overtures by lobbyists with ties to gaming who offered to help get recognition. "If we wanted to game," he said, "we wouldn't have had to resort to bake sales and carwashes to pay for our lobbyist."