The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Virginia Tribes Continue Long Fight for Sovereignty

by Catherine Komp

American Indians in Virginia are using the spotlight on the 400th anniversary of Jamestown to highlight their fight for federal recognition and acknowledgement of their status as nations.

Richmond, Va.; Feb. 14, 2007 – The Virginia state government plans to spend millions of dollars on educational and cultural events marking this year’s 400th anniversary of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. The state will host Queen Elizabeth II and a replica of Godspeed, the English ship that carried some of the first colonizers, will retrace routes taken in 1607 on the James River.

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For Virginia’s indigenous tribes, however, the 18-month-long event is not a celebration of Jamestown’s founding, but an opportunity to draw attention to historic and present-day struggles.

"What we’re celebrating in 2007 is the survival of our people, and our traditions and culture after 400 years of almost constant hostile occupation," Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson told The NewStandard.

The ancestors of Richardson and other Native Americans living in Virginia were among the first to encounter English colonizers and the disease, oppression and racism that followed. But despite long and documented histories in Virginia, not one tribe in the state is recognized as sovereign by the federal government.

Without the federal status granted to 561 Indian nations across the country, Virginia tribes say that the US government continues to deny their existence and place in history.

"Our tribes have suffered a lot of discrimination throughout the past, particularly by the state of Virginia," said Chickahominy Second Assistant Chief Wayne Adkins. "Many of our people were ashamed to even admit that they were Indians. They tried to keep it hidden. And so to be able to finally stand up and say, ‘Yeah we’re Indians and we’ve been recognized by the federal government’… It would just bring a lot of pride to people, particularly the elderly who experienced a lot of the discrimination."

Despite long and documented histories in Virginia, not one tribe in the state is recognized as sovereign by the federal government.

Federal recognition offers more-tangible benefits as well, including establishment of a government-to-government relationship with the United States. Along with this limited sovereignty, federally recognized tribes have legal authority to exercise control over their internal affairs, including forming their own government, putting land into trust status and regulating the use of tribal property. Federally recognized tribes also become eligible for services and benefits that could be used to support housing, education and healthcare programs. Additionally, the status would help tribes repatriate ancestral remains and artifacts now held by museums and educational institutions.

"The true meaning of [federal recognition]," said Richardson, "is to know that all the sacrifices of our ancestors before us have not been in vain, and to know and have the security that future generations of tribal people in Virginia will be recognized for who they are. That we weren’t just a group of people that claimed Indian heritage, and nobody really believed it, and the government wouldn’t validate it, so therefore we really didn’t exist."

Burden of Proof

Since 1978, the BIA has granted federal recognition status to only 15 tribes out of the 314 that applied. Another 23 were denied; the rest are pending.

Around the turn of the eighteenth century, English colonists ordered the Rappahannock tribe to leave their reservation and go to their winter hunting ground between the Rapphannock and Mattaponi Rivers in eastern Virginia. Today, the tribe’s 300 members still live on about 150 acres of that ancestral land.

The Rappahannocks’ quest for recognition began in 1921 when then-Chief George Nelson appealed to the US Congress to acknowledge the tribe. Nearly nine decades later, the Rappahannock tribe, along with the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monacan, Nansemond, Upper Mattaponi, Pamunkey and Mattaponi, continue to spend time and money trying to prove their historical and cultural identity to the US government.

For Kenneth Branham, chief of the Monacan Nation, the task of America’s "first peoples" having to prove their identity to the US government using fragmented histories is not only a headache but an injustice.

"If I was a Virginian, I’d be embarrassed with the situation," Branham told TNS. "We want the world to know this country was based on freedom of religion, [on] human rights, but yet here’s a group of people in this country that are not recognized and we were here thousands of years before the Europeans. We should have to recognize the European people, not the other way around."

Tribal leaders say they would also welcome the "dollars and cents" benefits that accompany federal recognition. Currently, unrecognized tribes must use member dues and private donations to buy back ancestral land and to fund education programs. Richardson, Branham and Adkins emphasized that funding is especially needed to help care for elders who have little of their own.

"To me, living in the state of Virginia, it’s a shame and a disgrace that we’re not federally recognized. We should have been many, many years ago."

Several of Virginia’s tribes have 300 or fewer members, and funding could also be used to preserve tribes’ heritage and customs. Richardson says there is an "imminent threat" that the Rappahannock tribe will not survive if its language and culture are not preserved.

"Our tribal dances, our stories, our songs – all of those things are very important components," Richardson said. "They’re right at the core of who you are as a tribal person, and if those things are lost what happens to our people?"

From her experiences working with other tribes across the country, Richardson says she knows that federal recognition is no panacea. If recognized as a sovereign nation, she anticipates, the tribe would struggle with federal agencies ignoring or trying to influence its decisions.

"But at least we’ll be sitting at the table," Richardson said. "At least other tribes will recognize us for who we are, and we won’t feel that we’re somehow less than everybody else because we don’t have this status. It will no longer be a humiliation for our people that we have not been recognized for who we really are."

A Broken System

Virginia tribes join hundreds of others across the country in the long and complicated process of seeking federal recognition. Since 1978, when the US Bureau of Indian Affairs began a formal procedure for obtaining federal recognition, the agency has granted the status to only 15 tribes out of the 314 that applied. Another 23 were denied; the rest are pending.

"There are tribes that put in an application in 1978-79 that are just now being looked at," said Gary Garrison, a spokesperson for the BIA.

Part of the reason for the backlog, said Garrison, is the small staff – three teams of three to review petitions that can be thousands of pages long and include complex archeological, anthropological and genealogical documentation. Tribes must meet seven mandatory criteria, including proving their continuous existence as a tribe since 1900 and their existence as a distinct community "from historical times to the present."

Gathering all of this information is costly, time-consuming and could add years to the BIA’s already-cumbersome process.

Faced with those options, Virginia’s tribes decided to pursue federal recognition through the US Congress. Bolstered by the Virginia General Assembly, which passed a near-unanimous resolution in 1999 urging their federal counterparts to grant recognition to all eight state-recognized tribes, the tribal leaders thought the process would be straightforward.

Eight years later, they are still vying for recognition.

"It’s wearing us down," said Adkins. "We’re all tired." The struggle comes on top of full-time jobs, families and preserving tribal culture and heritage, Adkins told TNS.

Though tribes have succeeded in subsequent years to get more bills introduced and to testify at congressional hearings, a handful of Virginia lawmakers have stymied the legislation.

Representative Virgil Goode (R–Virginia) has expressed opposition to empowering tribes to govern themselves, telling the Roanoke Times last year, "I don't want sovereignty that elevates them above the state." Representative Frank Wolf (R–Virginia), an outspoken critic of gambling in any state, does not want to support a federal recognition bill unless it expressly forbids tribes from opening casinos.

Assistant Chief Adkins and Chief Branham say the issue comes down to fear of granting governing control to tribes and a poor understanding of tribal sovereignty. As Baptists, Adkins said, they have no interest in gaming. Since their word is not enough, the tribes say opponents’ concerns should be allayed by the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which prevents tribes from opening casinos without state approval.

The most recent federal bill to extend recognition to the Rapphannocks, introduced in early January by Representative Jo Ann Davis (R–Virginia), contains a provision that prohibits Indian gaming on lands taken in trust. Representative Jim Moran (D–Virginia) also plans to reintroduce a bill covering all six tribes seeking recognition through legislation.

The Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribes decided to pursue federal recognition through the BIA. Those tribes are the only two that continue to hold state-recognized reservations, secured through historic treaties with the King of England and the Virginia General Assembly during the 17th Century.

Chiefs Richardson and Branham said they will participate in Jamestown 2007 festivities, but they may appear with protest signs in hand if lawmakers fail to move on a new recognition bill.

"We’re not happy going into 2007 and not being federally recognized," Branham said last month, before heading to Charlottesville to meet with the other seven chiefs. "To me, living in the state of Virginia, it’s a shame and a disgrace that we’re not federally recognized. We should have been many, many years ago."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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