A group challenging federal recognition of Virginia’s renowned Pamunkey Indian tribe has lost its case before the Interior Board of Indian Appeals.
The decision, which was made Thursday but not widely shared until Monday, removes the final legal hurdle standing in the way of the Pamunkeys’ decades-long quest to attain the coveted federal status.
The tiny tribe east of Richmond, which claims Pocahontas as an ancestor, will now receive all of the benefits and rights of federally recognized tribes. It can, if it chooses, pursue casino gambling in a state that has long opposed it — something that the tribe has considered in the past.
The Pamunkey tribe applauded the quick ruling in a statement released through its lawyer, Mark Tilden.
“The tribe never doubted that its final determination would become final and effective, though it is pleased that the IBIA was able to reach final resolution so quickly,” the statement read. “The tribe can now move forward in its new chapter as a federally-recognized Indian tribe.”
Tribal leaders had worried that the challenge by Stand Up for California, a small nonprofit opposed to unlimited expansion of tribal gaming, would mean a delay that could last years. Instead, it lasted a few months.
In July, the Pamunkey became the first Virginia tribe to win federal recognition from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. The 200-member tribe celebrated the hard-won victory, but the jubilation was short-lived. In October, recognition was put on hold when Stand Up for California, which seeks to impose stricter guidelines for tribal recognition, issued a last-minute challenge to the Pamunkey decision.
Stand Up for California’s founder, Cheryl Schmit, had teamed up with casino giant MGM in 2014 to oppose the Pamunkey’s attempts to gain recognition. MGM, which is opening the $1.3 billion National Harbor casino and resort in Maryland’s Prince George’s County later this year, has voiced opposition to any casinos being built in neighboring Virginia.
In its October challenge, Stand Up argued that the Pamunkey did not meet requirements for recognition, saying that current tribe members are not descended from Indians and that there were questions about whether the tribe operated as a functioning political entity.
But in its ruling, the Indian appeals board said that Stand Up had no standing to challenge the tribe’s new status. “Stand Up,” it said, “fails to articulate any type of factual interest that we believe was intended to be covered by the acknowledgment regulations, nor does Stand Up allege that it is adversely affected by the Assistant Secretary’s determination to acknowledge the tribe.”
The board also disagreed with Stand Up’s assertions that federal recognition for the Pamunkey tribe would have “significant impacts to the state and local government jurisdictions, surrounding communities, property owners, businesses, Indian and non-Indian individuals, and federally-recognized Indian tribes as well.”
Stand Up’s Schmit said Monday that she knew that her group’s standing to mount the challenge was always going to be a tough argument to make, but she doesn’t believe the objections were in vain. The arguments that she raised about the tribe’s eligibility will be available, she said, to other groups or individuals with standing who may want to challenge future actions taken by the tribe.
With the resolution of the recognition question, the Pamunkey becomes the 567th federally recognized tribe. An additional 356 tribes, including six from Virginia, are seeking federal recognition, and the money for housing, education and health care that comes with it.