On Tuesday, the 400th anniversary of the burial of Pocahontas, Sens. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) and Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) will reintroduce a bill that would grant federal recognition to six Virginia Indian tribes that were among the first to greet English settlers in 1607.
The proposed law faces hurdles, but if approved, the change in status would make available federal funds for housing, education and medical care to the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond tribes. It would also, its sponsors say, help right a long-standing wrong.
“Four hundred years after the death of Pocahontas, our country continues to do a disservice to her descendants by failing to recognize the major role Virginia’s tribes have played in American history and the fabric of our nation,” Kaine and Warner said in a joint statement. “These six tribes have treaties that predated the United States, but because of this historical quirk and the systematic destruction of their records, they have been denied federal recognition and the services that come along with it. Congress can fix this injustice by passing our bill and granting these tribes the federal recognition they deserve.”
A House version of the bill was introduced in February by a bipartisan slate of Virginia lawmakers.
The news release from Kaine and Warner noted that Upper Mattaponi Assistant Chief Ken Adams, Chickahominy Chief Stephen Adkins and Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson are in England this week taking part in events commemorating Pocahontas, including a plaque-dedication ceremony Tuesday at the church where she is buried.
Two years ago, the Pamunkey became Virginia’s first indigenous tribe to receive federal recognition. The Pamunkey, who claim Pocahontas as their own, were granted recognition through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs following a lengthy on-again, off-again process that began more than three decades earlier. The Pamunkey are one of 566 American Indian and Alaska Native tribal entities recognized by the federal government.
One of the many difficulties facing Virginia’s Indian tribes in their quest for recognition is a gap in record keeping that was created by a state law, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924. That act required that births in the state be registered as either “white” or “colored” with no option available for Indian.
That legislation was vigorously enforced by Walter Plecker, a white supremacist and eugenicist who served as registrar of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics for 35 years. It codified the “one-drop” rule that anyone born with even one drop of nonwhite blood would be considered colored or black. Births recorded as Indian became almost nonexistent, resulting in what historians have described as a “paper genocide” of Indian tribes.
Kaine and Warner are hoping that the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017, which has passed the House in two previous sessions but was never brought for a vote on the Senate floor, will not drag on for as long as the Pamunkey effort did. A key element of the bill is that it prohibits the tribes from operating casinos or gambling operations, making it less likely to be opposed by the powerful casino and gambling lobby.
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ken Adams as the chief of the Upper Mattaponi tribe. He is the assistant chief.