PAMUNKEY INDIAN RESERVATION, Va. – By the end of this month, the chief of the Indian tribe that greeted the country’s first English settlers and claims Pocahontas as an ancestor will receive a phone call that could change the tribe’s fate and perhaps its fortunes.
Kevin Brown and the 207 other members of the Pamunkey Indian tribe are waiting to find out if the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs will recognize them as a federal tribe, making them the first in Virginia to receive that designation. Approval will make the tribe — located east of Richmond — eligible for federal money for housing, education and health care, and will, for some, redress a long-standing injustice.
But the decision is also under intense scrutiny because it would allow the Pamunkey to pursue gambling ventures in a state that has steadfastly opposed casinos. Though the tribe has expressed no interest in opening a casino, the possibility has alarmed casino giant MGM, which is building a $1.2 billion gambling complex on Northern Virginia’s doorstep and objects to the tribe being granted the new status.
The Pamunkey have met all of the requirements for approval in the lengthy and byzantine process that guides the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s decision-making. But a final ruling in its favor is still not assured because of the opposition it has generated.
Virginia gas station and convenience store owners are worried they will lose customers if the tribe can sell gas, alcohol, cigarettes and other goods without charging state taxes. Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and 10 other members of the Congressional Black Caucus oppose recognition because they say the tribe once dictated that its members not marry African Americans. And MGM, which next year will open its National Harbor casino in Maryland just across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge from Virginia, submitted its official opposition to the bureau in a 39-page document last July.
For now, all the tribe can do is wait — and worry. Its members are anxious, Brown says. The Pamunkey have been pursuing federal recognition for almost 35 years. Success has never been this close at hand.
“It will be historic justice,” he says. “We met the English and John Smith. Pocahontas was Pamunkey. It’s crazy that we’re not recognized. We should have been the first recognized tribe.”
It’s a travesty that it has taken so long for the tribe to get so close to its goal, agrees Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (D-Va.), a former governor and a fervent supporter of the Pamunkey’s bid.
“Go into the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, at the foot of our Capitol, and there are permanent exhibits about our Virginia tribes,” Kaine says. “We recognize them as a museum piece, we just don’t recognize them as living, breathing people.”
Kaine, who is working to get federal recognition for six other Virginia tribes through an act of Congress, says the fact that “the best-known tribes in America, because of [their] interactions with the English settlers, have never received federal recognition is just a blight on our history.”
The Pamunkey Indian Reservation sits on 1,200 acres along the snaking Pamunkey River in rural eastern Virginia, and, on a recent afternoon, it feels almost deserted. There are just 50 full-time residents here, and many are elderly. The only noise comes from a light wind blowing through the just-budding trees, the river lapping at the shore and a few buzzards hungrily picking at the carcass of a raccoon.
Scholars estimate that there were 14,000 to 21,000 members of the Powhatan Confederacy — Algonqian-speaking tribes that include the Pamunkey — when the English settlers arrived in 1607. The Indians, who’d inhabited the region for hundreds of years before the English settlement at Jamestown, provided the colonists with food and aid. Each year in a much photographed event Thanksgiving week, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes present the governor of Virginia with two deer and a turkey in lieu of taxes. The Pamunkey reservation, among the oldest in the United States, is based on treaties signed with the English government in 1646 and 1677.
John Langston is standing in front of his house preparing to take his 15-foot boat out on the river and collect driftwood along the shore for the stove that heats his home. He was born on the reservation in 1928 and left in his 20s to take a job at the Nabisco bakery near Richmond where he operated a machine that fills Oreo cookies. He moved back in the early 1970s and has lived on the reservation ever since.
“This is just a quiet place where nothing much happens,” Langston says. “It’s God’s country, and it gives us peace. And that’s how I like to live, in peace.”
The tranquil reservation, 35 miles off Interstate 95, doesn’t look like it would one day be home to a flashy casino. But the tribe won’t comment on the question of casinos, and that possibility is clearly what has MGM worried. The slightest hint of any casino opening in Virginia raises its hackles.
In December 2013, MGM Resorts International chairman and chief executive Jim Murren told reporters in Maryland that “Virginia won’t get gaming in my lifetime.” In an interview with Nevada political journalist Jon Ralston, Murren was more emphatic, saying: “We think that Virginia and many other surrounding states will never have gaming.”
In July, MGM National Harbor’s president, Lorenzo Creighton, co-authored a lengthy document submitted to the Bureau of Indian Affairs opposing its proposed finding to recognize the Pamunkey. Creighton’s letter questioned whether the Pamunkey employed discriminatory practices when it came to allowing women to marry outside of the tribe and whether it practiced racial discrimination.
MGM also disputes the bureau’s conclusion that the tribe has met all the criteria necessary for federal recognition, which includes showing that the tribe comprises a distinct community and has existed from historical times to the present day; has political influence over its members; has submitted a copy of its governing document; and has demonstrated that current members descend from a historic tribe.
In a statement Thursday, Gordon Absher, a spokesman for MGM Resorts International, said, “Our intent was to urge careful study of all important factors in consideration of new applications. Given the increasingly competitive environment for both tribal and commercial casino gaming, it is important the criteria for acknowledgment follow the same established procedures applied to previous applicants.”
Eleven African American legislators also argued against recognition in a September letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., saying that the tribe had a long-established practice of racial discrimination.
“As part of its recognition review,” the letter stated, “the BIA found that Pamunkey Law prohibits its member from intermarriage ‘with any person except those with white or Indian blood.’ These findings . . . are very disturbing not only because BIA fails to express any condemnation, but BIA effectively condones the Pamunkey for its discriminatory practices.”
The tribe dismissed the racial discrimination charge as baseless.
“As with many antiquated laws, this ordinance remained on the books beyond its usefulness,” Brown wrote in October to Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), then chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “This Chief and Tribal Council have not enforced this antiquated law and have admitted Tribal Members who are married to African Americans.”
Brown also wrote to Fudge that the charge of discrimination ignores the complexity of how Native American tribes have historically been penalized for intermarrying.
“Racial intermixture was raised repeatedly as a rationale to divest us of our reservation and our Indian status,” he wrote. “Such efforts . . . continue to this day — most recently in the assertions of ‘significant intermarriage’ with non Pamunkey advanced by [opposition groups] Stand-up California and MGM Grand as a rationale to question our Indian identity in order to protect their gaming interests.”
The final decision on recognition rests with Kevin K. Washburn, the bureau’s assistant secretary. The agency is not commenting until a final decision, expected by March 31, has been announced, a spokeswoman said.
If the bureau ultimately rules against the Pamunkey, “it would send a troubling message to tribes,” says Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, a lawyer and director of the Indian Legal Program at Arizona State University. She thinks it would discourage other tribes from pursuing the time-consuming and costly federal process and instead try to get recognition through Congress.
Brown, who was elected chief in 2008 and reelected in 2012, says he thinks the effort to join the other 566 American Indian and Alaska Native tribal entities recognized by the federal government has been worth it.
“We’ve learned a lot about ourselves,” he says. “And we’re proud that even after all these years, we’ve maintained our culture and our society and our government and our community. So it will mean a lot to us.”