A House committee has advanced a bill that would give federal recognition to six Indian tribes in Virginia, bringing them one step closer to the end of a multi-year fight for acknowledgment of their place in the nation’s history.
Legislation granting federal recognition of the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond tribes can now go to a full vote in the House and Senate, where it has stalled in the past.
The House Natural Resources Committee voted 23 to 13 last week to recognize the Virginia tribes as part of a package of bills that, if successful, will give Congress the ultimate authority to recognize tribes. The executive and judicial branches currently hold that authority.
There are more than 500 federally recognized Indian tribes, and many had to navigate an expensive and time-consuming administrative process through the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs
Federal recognition confers certain benefits on tribes; they become eligible for housing, education and health-care funding. Indian tribes need to meet several criteria and must rely on historical documentation.
Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.), a sponsor of the House bill, said he wants Congress to decide whether to recognize tribes, because it would carry the force of law.
His goal is to protect the identity of tribes whose ancestors played a critical role in the nation’s history, Wittman said. Virginia tribes made it possible for the first permanent English settlement in America to succeed when others failed, he said.
One reason the tribes have not been formally recognized by the federal government is because they made peace with England before the country was established and never signed formal treaties with the U.S. government, according to Wittman.
“These tribes shouldn’t be denied federal recognition because of one-size-fits-all requirements that fail to account for circumstances beyond their control,” he said. “Federal recognition isn’t just a tribe priority — it’s a Virginia priority. And I will keep fighting until the federal government rights this wrong.”
Wittman, who is running for governor, noted that Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) and past governors from both parties have supported federal recognition legislation. U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia have also pushed for Senate passage.
Although the six Virginia tribes are officially recognized by the commonwealth, they have faced roadblocks to federal recognition because of gaps in official records.
In the hope of winning political support, the six tribes gave up the right to open casinos or other gambling ventures.
Last year, the tiny Pamunkey tribe east of Richmond, which claims Pocahontas as an ancestor, became the first tribe in Virginia to win federal recognition.