They are best known for showing up on the State Capitol steps every fall where they perform tribal rituals and present the governor with deers, doves and turkeys -- a fulfillment of treaty obligations going back to 1677.
But Virginia's Indians, descendants of the Powhatan Confederacy that once tried to wipe out English settlers at Jamestown, long have felt neglected. Today, a legislative panel offered to make amends, recommending that as "a matter of fairness" the state grant official recognition and status to six tribes and create a state commission on Indians to look out for their interests.
The proposal--capping an 82-year lobbying effort by the Indians--warmed the heart of Lone Eagle, chief of the Chickahominy, whose tribal center is on the James River about 28 miles southeast of Richmond. "It's wonderful," said Lone Eagle, who also goes by the name of O. Oliver Adkins. "I view this as a matter of pride."
Ethnic pride, along with the prospect of federal dollars, appears to have been the principal factors behind today's recommendations by the joint subcommittee studying relationships between the commonwealth and native Indian tribes. An 18-page report released by the panel notes that formal recognition by the state is a prerequisite for many federal aid programs and other benefits.
The suggestion that that the lure of federal lucre was behind the creation of the Indian subcommittee had once put off one of its members, Sen. Wiley F. Mitchell (R-Alexandria). "I was skeptical of the purpose," he said today. "I didn't know exactly what the hidden agenda was."
But as he delved into the subject, Mitchell satisfied himself that the Indians' claims were legitimate. "I found a group of people who have an enormous pride in their heritage and go to great lengths to preserve their ethnic roots," he said.
According to the report, the 1980 Census found about 9,000 Indians in Virginia. The largest concentration were the so-called "urban Indians" in Northern Virginia, where 2,344 were found.
The report's recommendations, however, are aimed at those Indians in eastern Virginia, near the James and York Rivers, who still conduct tribal meetings, maintain rolls, and, in full headdress and costumes, perform tribal ceremonies.
Two of the tribes--the Pamunkey and the Mattaponi -- upon which the panel recommended conferring official status are already recogized by the federal government and live on reservations. (It is their chieftains who perform the annual gift-giving ceremony here.)
The victory was sweetest for the four others -- the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Eastern Chickahominy and Lone Eagle's Chickahominy--who long have been ignored by state officials. "In January of 1900, my tribe first petitioned the legislature for recognition," said Lone Eagle who has been chief for 42 years. "It's been a long time."