In the summer of 1619, two dozen white men met inside a church in Jamestown, Va., to set tobacco prices and enact prohibitions on gambling and drunkenness. It was the first legislative assembly in America, although the colonists might not have survived long enough to hold it if it weren’t for assistance from Native Americans.
Four centuries later, the descendants of those Indians are demanding that legislators return the favor by finally granting them federal recognition.
“The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the native peoples, who provided the environment that helped sustain the settlers,” said Stephen Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy, one of six Virginia tribes seeking recognition.
Last week, the U.S. House voted in favor of the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017, which would formally acknowledge the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond tribes.
But the legislation needs approval from the Senate, which has twice blocked recognition.
“We are inching closer and closer,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who with Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) sponsored the bill in the Senate. Kaine said he planned on spending the next month drumming up support to right what he called an “injustice.”
The legislation wouldn’t make up for centuries of suffering, its proponents acknowledge. But it would enable the tribes to join the 567 recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes in receiving federal money for housing, education and health care.
It would also allow the tribes to claim artifacts, religious objects and ancestors’ remains kept in museums.
“It’s a matter of pride,” said Adkins, whose tribe has about 850 members. “We want to be acknowledged as the sovereign people we are.”
One thing the legislation would not allow is gambling.
The six tribes were part of the Powhatan Nation, a confederation of eastern Virginia tribes that met the first permanent English settlers in America at Jamestown in 1607.
The tribes are perhaps best known for Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan who, according to legend, saved the life of Capt. John Smith.
But their contributions to the country’s history go far beyond Pocahontas, Adkins said. He pointed to a 1614 peace treaty between the Chickahominy and settlers as the first of its kind in America.
“We helped sustain these folks when they couldn’t cope with the harsh conditions of the winters, the hot summers, and did not understand the growing seasons and hunting and fishing — much to our peril, because our land was lost, our language was trashed, and our ranks were decimated,” he said. “We had the artillery, even though it was primitive — bows and arrows and clubs — to eradicate these folks if that had been the will of the Indian leaders.”
In 1677, the tribes signed a peace treaty with the English government. In exchange for allegiance to the crown, they were granted rights to lands and promised protection. (To this day, some tribes honor the agreement by showing up on the Virginia state Capitol’s steps each fall to present deer, doves and turkeys to the governor.)
After the American Revolution, however, the United States did not recognize the treaty. And unlike other tribes, who fought the settlers and eventually secured treaties, the Virginia tribes were never recognized.
“In an ironic way, the Virginia tribes became peaceful too soon,” Kaine said. “They shouldn’t be penalized for making their peace with European settlers of the United States sooner than others did.”
History continued to conspire against the tribes. During the Civil War, troops set fire to courthouses containing tribal records.
The biggest obstacle to the tribes gaining recognition was a racist state official named Walter A. Plecker.
Plecker’s name is practically a four-letter word for Native Americans in Virginia. The bespectacled physician, eugenicist and avowed white supremacist ran the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 until his retirement in 1946.
Plecker pushed the Virginia legislature to pass the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which criminalized interracial marriage and required that every birth in the state be recorded by race with the only options being “White” and “Colored.”
The law, which literally erased Indians from state records, is sometimes referred to as “the paper genocide.” Plecker boasted that it was “the most perfect expression of the white ideal, and the most important eugenical effort that has been made in 4,000 years.”
Virginia recognized the tribes in the early 1980s. Around the same time, some of the tribes began applying for federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But that process required records that many tribes didn’t have.
“A lot of our records were destroyed,” Adkins said, “and those that weren’t were altered by Walter Plecker.”
In the late 1990s, Adkins and five other chiefs began trying another route: asking Congress to pass a law recognizing the tribes.
For more than a decade, the effort’s main backer was Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who persuaded the six tribes to waive their rights to gambling as a condition of recognition.
In 2007, the first time the bill passed the House, he said it was named after a Native American activist who had united the tribes in an effort to receive recognition.
“Thomasina E. Jordan, who had Indian blood in her, came to see me one day,” Moran told The Washington Post a decade ago. “She had to be carried in because she was so ill. She held my hand and made me promise to do this. And she died the next morning. ”
The legislation languished in the Senate, however, where a single lawmaker can hold up a bill. The same thing happened in 2009.
Kaine hopes his bill meets a different fate.
“We do feel like there has been some slight forward movement,” he said, noting that his bill breezed through the Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs on the same day its sister bill passed in the House.
Some of those most staunchly opposed to recognizing the six tribes are no longer in the Senate, Kaine added.
Another positive sign came two years ago when another Powhatan tribe, the Pamunkey, became the first in Virginia to be federally recognized after a lengthy on-again, off-again administrative process.
Adkins said he had been lobbying Congress for almost 20 years. Along the way, several chiefs had died waiting for recognition.
“The time is now,” he said. “Four hundred years is long enough.”