The Pamunkey Indians — best known as the tribe of Pocahontas — will have to wait four more months to find out if its 35-year quest to become the first tribe in Virginia to be recognized by the federal government will be successful.
Kevin Brown, the chief of the 208-member Pamunkeys, was notified of the delay in a letter sent to him on Friday by the Interior Department. The letter said only that the office of the assistant secretary for Indian affairs needs additional time to issue a final determination.
Federal approval would make the tribe, located east of Richmond, eligible for for federal money for housing, education and health care. But it would also allow the tribe to pursue gambling ventures in a state strongly opposed casinos.
The tribe has not indicated that it wants to open a casino but its bid for federal recognition was strongly opposed by casino giant MGM, which next year will open a $1.2 billion casino complex in Maryland just across the Potomac river from Virginia.
In an interview earlier this month, Pamunkey chief Kevin Brown said that receiving federal recognition “will be historic justice. 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.”
The Pamunkey are one of the country’s most historic tribes. Its members greeted John Smith and English settlers on their arrival in what is now Jamestown. And one of the most famous American Indians, Pocahontas, was a member of the Pamunkey tribe.
Each year before Thanksgiving, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes present the governor of Virginia with two deer and a turkey in lieu of taxes. The Pamunkey’s 1,200 reservation along the snaking Pamunkey River in rural eastern Virginia, is based on treaties signed with the English government in 1646 and 1677.
But despite its storied history, the Pamunkey struggled in their effort to get federal recognition. In addition to facing opposition by MGM, the tribe’s bid was opposed by members of the Congressional Black Caucus who claimed the tribe had discriminatory practices when it came to allowing its members to marry outside of the tribe.
Convenience store owners in Virginia also opposed the ruling because they said it would allow the Pamunkey to sell goods such as gasoline, cigarettes and alcohol without charging state taxes.
MGM, the most vocal opponent of the Pamunkey’s effort, saying that the tribe had not met the criteria for federal recognition. 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.
In a statement issued last week, 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.”