As Year's End Nears, Disappointment
Va. Tribes Had Hoped Jamestown Events Would Help Them Gain Sovereign Indian Nation Status

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

The bill would enable their children to apply for scholarships and would open up federal funds for housing, health care and economic development.

It would mean that they could finally petition the federal government to return the bones of their ancestors from the drawers and boxes of Smithsonian warehouses to be buried with respect, something that only tribes with federal status are allowed to do.

But that day, all lawmakers argued about was gambling. This time, though, Virginia Indians had signed away their right to it.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a fierce opponent of gambling, had nearly single-handedly held up their bill for eight years. Now, he was finally giving his grudging support. "My concern is not with the federal recognition of Virginia's Indian tribes," Wolf told his colleagues. "It has always been with the explosive spread of gambling and the potential for casino gambling to come to Virginia."

Other lawmakers called the tribes "arrogant" for trying to bypass the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Tupponce shook his head. They had tried to apply at the bureau. But when the chiefs met with bureau officials in the late 1990s, they were emphatically told that their petitions would probably not be looked at in their lifetimes. And if they were, the actions of Walter A. Plekker, who served as head of the state's Bureau of Vital Statistics for much of the 20th century and changed the race on all their birth, death and marriage records from "Indian" to "colored," would make their case almost impossible to prove.

So it was such a sweet moment, Tupponce said, when the bill passed that May day. After eight years of lobbying, it was the farthest they had gotten. Three days later, the Queen of England, the president and television crews from around the world would arrive in Jamestown for the vaunted Anniversary Weekend.

"We had so much momentum in the House leading up to the Anniversary Weekend. The coalescence of those two events seems more than coincidental," said Karenne Wood, a member of the Monacan Nation. "Some people are suggesting that they were just making sure that there wouldn't be public protests. And I wouldn't disagree."

After the high of the weekend, everything stopped. Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), who had in previous years given his support to the recognition bill, was silent. And newly elected Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) said he needed time to study their history and claims. After months, sending staffers to dig in historical records and scrutinize genealogies, Webb was satisfied. On Nov. 8, flanked by tribal leaders, he held a news conference announcing his support.

He knows he moved too late in the political game for the tribes to get their recognition this year, as they had so wanted.

"I don't work like that," Webb said. "The key for me was to establish their continuous presence. Without that, we would be responding to the political emotions of the time."

What finally convinced him, he said, was finding that Virginia Indians were excluded from President Andrew Jackson's 1830 Indian Removal Order that sent eastern Indians to western territories to make room for more white settlers. Virginia Indians by that time had lost almost all of their land. They were no longer in the way.

Many Virginia Indians now say that what they feel most strongly is conflicted. They are still without federal recognition. But people as far away as Russia and India now know the story of Jamestown from the Indians' point of view and of their survival all these centuries later, finally dispelling the notion that they'd all been "routed and dispersed" by 1700.

Steven Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe, ticked off his legacies of the Jamestown 400 year. The Department of Historic Resources began putting up highway markers recognizing native history, including the settlers' massacre of an entire Paspahegh village. The state's Standards of Learning materials, which once mentioned only Pocahontas and taught erroneously that the Virginia Indians were nomadic, have been corrected. Indians organized teacher training seminars and Web sites.

They have traveled to England, to Pocahontas's grave, and met with members of Parliament. They have been consulted as advisers on every Jamestown event and in the archaeological excavation of the recently uncovered Powhatan capital city, Werowocomoco. Chief Richardson recently gave a talk at the Holocaust Memorial Museum about Plekker's "bureaucratic genocide." They have published a full-color Virginia Indian Heritage Trail for tourists. They have worked with local museums to more accurately reflect their history. They threw pots, strung beads and shared their traditional culture -- what little they have been able to piece together of it through a process of what they call "cultural reclamation" -- at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

"We have to remember that the story would not have reached as many ears were it not for this signal moment" of the commemoration, Adkins said.

Just after the Webb news conference this month, Wayne Adkins, a Chickahominy assistant chief, and Keith Smith, a member of the Nansemond tribe, walked to their car in the chill morning. Adkins wore a bolo tie with painted antler horn, felt cowboy hat and a colorful felt vest with Indian geometric designs. Smith wore an eagle bone whistle draped around his neck, a sign of honor in his tribe.

The two are pragmatic. If not 2007, then 2008. "Some people are saying that in 2008, they'll push us back in the corner again, and we'll never get recognition," Adkins said. "But if that happens, then it'll be our own fault."

Smith stopped short. "Look! Look!" he said. "A hawk. A broad-shouldered hawk."

The fierce-eyed bird had flown into a bare tree just ahead.

"That's a good sign!" Smith said.

He stopped to say good morning to the hawk, as a group of congressional staffers in seemingly identical blue suits and polished shoes walked by, snickering.

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