By Stephen Groves
ALEXANDRIA — They were here before Virginia was called Virginia, but the federal government still doesn’t recognize them.
The Chickahominy tribe even met John Smith, helping the early settlers grow corn. Now they are fighting to be recognized as an Indian tribe by the federal government.
If they are recognized, the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Nansemond, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi tribes, as well as the Monacan Indian Nation would be eligible for federal health care and education funding through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The tribes are currently recognized by the Commonwealth, but want sovereignty as a tribe from the federal government.
It would provide “funding for things that are desperately needed in a rural and low-income community,” said G. Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock tribe, which is centered in Indian Neck, Va.
But it is also important to the tribes that their status as Native Americans is remembered.
“We’ve been forgotten … Everybody’s forgotten us,” Richardson said.
Recognition as a tribe would allow members privileges, such as rights to the remains of their ancestors, which are now owned by museums.
“It’s more than just dollars and cents,” said Wayne Adkins of the Chickahominy tribe located in Charles City County. “It’s a matter of pride for all the discrimination our elders faced. This is a way to restore that pride.”
Adkins said federal funding would allow them to run a museum or visitor’s center and educate about their heritage.
Tribes have been petitioning the federal government for recognition since 1921, when Chief George Nelson of the Rappahannock tribe went to Washington to ask for sovereign rights. And the tribes may soon get their wish, if a vote on a bill to give them recognition can get to the floor of the Senate say advocates for the tribes.
Lindsay Robertson, a professor of federal Indian law at the University of Oklahoma, College of Law, said that the Virginia groups have a good case to be federally recognized. They can prove they have been here since English settlers made first contact.
While many of the larger Indian tribes have achieved federal recognition through treaties with the federal government, smaller tribes must go through the recognition process because a treaty was never made between the U.S. government and the tribe, said Robertson.
Thus the need for legislative action. Both Virginia’s senators are sponsoring the bill, which gives federal recognition to the tribes, but would also bar gambling operations. A partner bill, sponsored by Rep. James Moran
(D), has already passed the House of Representatives. Gov. Bob McDonnell
has leant his support to the effort.
“Support for these six Virginia tribes has been voiced many times during the 15 years since they began seeking federal recognition,” said Sen. Jim Webb
(D) after the bill passed committee. “I strongly believe that recognition for these six Virginia tribes is justified based on principles of dignity and fairness.”
But the Senate bill may have hit a snag. It was cleared by the Subcommittee on Senate Indian Affairs and was slated to get a vote on the floor. But Sen. Tom Coburn (R- Okla.) put a hold on the vote because he believed the issue of recognition should be handled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs rather than by Congress. Coburn’s office did not return calls for a comment on his concerns.
Virginia’s Indian tribes decided not to go through the Bureau of Indian affairs because the process can take several years. All the tribes have filed a letter of intent to petition the Bureau for recognition, but decided to put their efforts into gaining recognition through Congress.
In order to be approved by the Bureau, groups must pass seven requirements that qualify them as bona fide Indians. Groups must present historical records, birth certificates, and censuses to make a case. This can be expensive and time-consuming. But it is also necessary to ensure people are not just taking advantage of the federal funding that comes with being a federally recognized Indian tribe.
Presenting the right documents could be difficult for Virginia’s tribes. Many of the courthouses that kept these documents were burned in the Civil War. Also, the 1924 Racial Integrity Act led to state records trying to wipe out Indians on paper. Indians were forced to identify themselves as “colored.”
Walter Plecker, the registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912-1946, replaced “Indian” with “black” on many of the birth and death certificates that came through his office.
So for now, the tribes see the bill in the Senate as their best bet. But as the Senate’s session draws to a close, time may be running out.
Adkins is concerned that it could be voted down in the unpredictable politics of an election year.
“We’re kind of up against a wall,” he said.
They recently received support from some friends in the religious sphere. The Virginia Council of Churches sent an open letter to Sens. Webb and Mark Warner
(D) and the governor, pressing for federal recognition of the tribes.
"We are deeply concerned that if this bill does not pass this session, the recognition of Virginia's tribes will be lost," read the letter, signed by thirty-two of Virginia's religious leaders.