In the weeks before the Pamunkey Indians received federal recognition in July, leaders of the Virginia tribe were pursuing a potential casino deal with developers, according to a letter to tribal members from then-Chief Kevin Brown obtained by The Washington Post. That effort — and the resulting fallout — led to acrimony among the 208-member tribe and, ultimately, to Brown losing his job.
Landing a casino would have huge implications for the Pamunkey, who claim Pocahontas as an ancestor and have spent decades and at least $2.5 million seeking federal recognition. The impact would also be significant for Virginia, one of the few states in the country without casino gambling, and for MGM, the casino behemoth that is opening a $1.3 billion casino next year at National Harbor in Prince George’s County, across the Potomac from Northern Virginia.
For now, though, the tribe’s recognition is on hold because of a last-minute challenge to the designation by a California-based group that has sought to limit Indian casino expansion.
The Pamunkey had refused to disclose whether they would chase casino opportunities. The letter from the former chief is the first clear suggestion that the tribe was moving in that direction.
In a June 22 letter sent on Pamunkey Tribal Government stationery to residents of the reservation, Brown accused members of the tribal council of conspiring to force him out of his position because he had decided not to sign a casino deal with a developer.
“I have seen firsthand the greed and evil a deal like this can bring out in people and have changed my position regarding gaming as a viable endeavor for the tribe at this time,” Brown said in the letter. “The Council is attempting to go forward with the development without my consent, which can cause serious legal problems for the tribe in the future.”
Brown was referring to a June 20 meeting that took place on the reservation where, he said, tribal leaders “Bob Gray, Brad Brown, Warren Cook and Ivy Hill, assisted by our former attorney, Mark Tilden, have taken it upon themselves to attempt to overthrow your traditional Government of a Chief & Council.”
The flare-up on the 1,200-acre reservation, east of Richmond, followed a proposed annual budget that would have paid the chief $100,000, the assistant chief $50,000 and the tribe’s six council members $25,000. Other itemized expenses would have pushed the annual budget total to around $500,000, a huge leap from its current budget of approximately $30,000.
Those figures roiled the reservation’s members, with many wondering where the money would come from and questioning the fairness of the suggested salaries. While no specific developer is named in any of the correspondences, some members said they believed that money for the annual budget was being provided upfront by an investor as part of a long-term deal.
“You ain’t gonna get that kind of money by opening up a little store on the reservation,” said a member of the tribe who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely on the matter.
Pamunkey leaders now say there is no agreement in the works.
“No, no deal has been signed, and I can’t speak any further to it than that,” said Robert Gray, who was elected chief after Brown’s departure in late June. “What you’re referring to is internal tribal affairs, and we have laws that we don’t share that.”
Tilden, the tribe’s attorney, who survived an effort by Brown to fire him, said in a statement: “All comments in the letter reflect the views and opinions of an individual Tribal member and not those of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe or its government.”
Brown declined to comment.
The prospect of the tribe opening a casino did not sit well with elected officials in Virginia who have long fought casino development. But Virginia House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) was not surprised to learn of the discussions.
“Most tribes in this country have gone the route of getting a casino license, and I had no reason to think that the Pamunkeys would be any different,” said Howell, who has been a vociferous critic of casinos throughout his career.
Despite his opposition, he said the legislature would not fight the tribe’s efforts. “I don’t see how we could, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s a federal issue.”
MGM executives, who had been certain that Virginia would remain a casino-gambling holdout, also expressed disappointment. “It was our understanding from the tribe’s repeated statements during the application process that it had no plans to pursue casino development,” said Gordon M. Absher, a spokesman for MGM Resorts International.
In July, the Pamunkey became the first Virginia tribe to gain federal recognition. The decision, which had been sought by the tribe for more than three decades, was heralded by the state’s other Indian tribes, six of which are seeking federal recognition, and by political leaders, including Sens. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Mark R. Warner (D) and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
But the historic decision was put on hold Oct. 6 after a challenge from Stand Up for California, a nonprofit organization in Penryn, Calif., that has sought to limit the development and spread of casinos on Indian land.
Cheryl Schmit, Stand Up’s founder, filed a four-page appeal with the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, saying that the tribe had not met qualifications for federal status. Schmit said that tribe members are not descended from Indian ancestors and that it is questionable whether the tribe operated as a functioning political entity, both of which are requirements for recognition.
The tribe, which greeted English settlers at Jamestown more than 400 years ago, dismissed Schmit’s arguments.
“Stand Up for California’s request to the IBIA for reconsideration is unfounded, meritless and unsupported by evidence,” Tilden said in an e-mail to The Post. “The Tribe’s sovereign strength, which traces back well before the arrival of the earliest colonists to Virginia, will see it through this frivolous attack as it has seen it through so many other thoughtless, mean-spirited attacks in the past.”
The appeals process could be a lengthy one, a fact that aggravates tribe members who said they believed that they finally had recognition in hand.
“We’re disappointed,” Gray said in an interview. “Thirty years of disappointment. That’s how long this has taken, and then to have an organization from the other side of the country doing something for whatever nefarious purposes that they have, it makes us angry.”