The change in status makes federal funds available for housing, education and medical care for about 4,400 members of the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond tribes. The recognition also allows the tribes to repatriate remains of their ancestors stored at the Smithsonian.
More importantly, sponsors say, it corrects a long-standing injustice for tribes that were among the first to greet English settlers in 1607.
Chickahominy Indian Chief Stephen Adkins, who watched from the Senate gallery, said that because of administrative roadblocks, the chiefs were once told they wouldn't live to see the day they were federally recognized.
"We can hold our heads high as acknowledged sovereign nations within the United States of America," he said by phone after the vote.
He has lobbied every session of Congress since 1999 in hope of achieving a status that will bring both dignity and real prospects for an improved quality of life to tribal members.
The bill, which was introduced in the House by Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), passed the House in May.
"Decades in the making, federal recognition will acknowledge and protect historical and cultural identities of these tribes for the benefit of all Americans," Wittman said.
Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine (D-Va.) forced a surprise vote on the bill by unanimous consent Thursday afternoon with no guarantee it would pass.
Over the years, anonymous senators have exercised their authority to put "holds" on the bill, blocking it from advancing.
Opponents rejected the notion that Congress should recognize the Virginia tribes when the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs set up an administrative procedure for just this reason.
However, the chiefs say the expensive and time-consuming process effectively precluded the Virginia tribes because gaps in their records made it impossible for them to provide complete genealogies.
Some senators with tribes in their home states wanted Congress to recognize all the tribes together instead of singling out Virginia.
Still others worried federal recognition would open the door to casinos, despite language in the bill saying gaming was prohibited.
Warner and Kaine renewed the push for passage late last year and received word Thursday morning that two of the three remaining holds had relented.
"Boy, oh, boy — this is the day we get things right on a civil rights basis, on a moral basis and on a fairness basis," Warner said on the floor.
The six tribes covered by the bill were part of the Powhatan Nation, a confederation of eastern Virginia tribes known for Pocahontas who, according to legend, saved the life of Capt. John Smith.
Kaine said several chiefs traveled to England in the spring to commemorate Pocahontas, including attending a plaque-dedication ceremony at the church where she is buried.
"They were treated as sovereigns, treated with respect and all they've asked is to be treated the same way by the country they love," he said.
There are more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes, many of whom navigated the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs process. In 2016, the Pamunkey tribe became the first Virginia tribeto be recognized by the bureau. But a discriminatory state law and quirks of history blocked that path for the remaining six Virginia tribes.
The Racial Integrity Act of 1924, required that births in the state be registered as either "white" or "colored," with no option available for Native Americans. The result is what historians have described as a "paper genocide" of Indian tribes.
Other key documents were lost in Civil War-era fires.
Delays also resulted from the tribes' unique place in history: They made peace with England before the country was established and never signed formal treaties with the U.S. government.
Former Rep. Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, first introduced a federal recognition bill in 2000, at the urging of Thomasina E. Jordan, an activist for whom the bill is still named.
"This is a very big deal," Moran said Thursday. "It's been a travesty of justice that it's continued so long without recognizing these tribes."
Early in his term as senator, former Virginia governor George Allen also pushed for the legislation, which passed the Senate for the first time Thursday.
"If we see an eagle feather or a hawk feather," he said, "it means [Thomasina Jordan] is smiling upon the passage of this."
Joe Heim contributed to this report.