As Year's End Nears, Disappointment
Friday, November 23, 2007
They have donned their fringed buckskin, bone breastplates and finest headdresses made of turkey feather or porcupine hair. They have danced for the Queen of England. They have smiled for President George W. Bush.
At every turn during this Jamestown 400 Commemoration, Virginia's remaining Indian tribes have done everything asked of them.
As the anniversary year draws to a close, however, they do not have the one thing they wanted most: federal recognition as sovereign Indian nations, equal to the Navajo, Arapaho and the Sioux. "First to greet. Last to be recognized," had been their rallying cry. Now, many Virginia Indians find themselves in a familiar, hollow place.
"You're left feeling that this is all kind of superficial, from the Indian point of view. Like we were used one more time," said Chief Ann Richardson of the Rappahannock tribe. "You feel like in 2008, they might just forget about us again."
"Broken promises to Indians," added Chief Ken Adams of the Upper Mattaponi. "The cycle does repeat itself, doesn't it?"
On Wednesday, leaders from some of the eight state-recognized Indian tribes again donned their regalia to offer their annual Thanksgiving tribute of fish and game to the governor, honoring the 1646 treaty with the British Crown that gave them the reservation land that over the centuries only two tribes, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, have been able to hold on to.
There was such excitement this time last year, tribal members said, as they readied for the world's eyes. "Now, we're afraid that we've lost the moment," said Reginald Tupponce, an Upper Mattaponi leader who recently resigned his position from the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, a group that hosts pow wows and yard sales and raffles baked goods to raise funds to lobby for federal recognition.
The road to federal recognition for any tribe is steep and uncertain. The Bureau of Indian Affairs has a Federal Office of Acknowledgement that requires tribes to prove, with reams of exacting documents and genealogies, that they have been in continuous existence from the time of first contact with European settlers. That's 400 years for Virginia Indians.
"The procedures put in place were so stringent, they were designed to limit the groups that could come in," said Mark E. Miller, a historian who has written books about forgotten eastern tribes.
So a process that was designed to take two years for the 300-some tribes that have applied instead generally takes 20, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Some tribes have instead appealed to Congress. But some powerful figures, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), argue that lawmakers do not have the expertise to make the call. And in the days since the Indian gaming/Jack Abramoff scandal that sent lobbyists to jail for defrauding Indian tribes, the route through Congress has become close to impossible.
Tupponce remembers sitting in the gallery high above the House of Representatives in spring, holding his breath as lawmakers debated whether to pass the legislation that would give sovereign status to six Virginia tribes: the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Nansemond, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Monacan.