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Six Indian Tribes Fight for Recognition

Virginia’s Native Americans Are Recognized by the State, but Not Washington

The peace treaties forged between Virginia’s Indian tribes and English settlers in the 17th century were so influential that tribal members in buckskin and feathers still deliver wild game and fish to the governor’s mansion in Richmond each Thanksgiving.

But while their relationship with the state government spans four centuries, Virginia’s Native American tribes have never earned similar recognition from the federal government.

Six of the state’s tribes — the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Indian Tribe Eastern Division, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond — hope that after a decade of lobbying, Congress will pass legislation this year granting the tribe’s federal recognition.

“There are about 550 federally recognized tribes in this country. None are in Virginia,” Upper Mattaponi Tribe Chief Ken Adams said, pausing to emphasize that point. “We’re looking for equality.”

Recognized tribes, which include such well-known names as the Navajo, Sioux and Cherokee, receive federal benefits, expanded Medicare and Medicaid coverage, and are able to compete for federal grants.

Tribes are legally able to establish membership requirements and their own governing system, enforce laws and collect taxes.

Federal recognition also has a symbolic meaning to the 2,500 Virginia tribal members whose ties to the commonwealth predate the state’s founding in 1607.

“For a lot of us it’s a matter of pride that we’re put on the same level as other tribes in the country,” said Wayne Adkins, a member of the Chickahominy tribe and president of the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, the political arm for the state’s tribes.

VITAL hired Elizabeth Walker in 1999 as its chief lobbyist. The Virginia native, whose father served alongside Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in the state assembly, carried VITAL with her from McGuireWoods to Alcalde & Fay, where she worked from 2001 to 2002.

Walker now represents the Virginia tribes at her solo shop, Walker Law.

The tribes “don’t have a fighting chance if they don’t have somebody,” she said. “Indian issues are underrepresented.”

The House passed the recognition bill last year, and Walker is gunning for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to schedule a markup before the August recess.

With bill sponsor Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) retiring at the end of this Congress, tribal members are concerned they will lose support on Capitol Hill.

Get Thee to the BIA

When the tribes began lobbying Congress in the late 1990s, Members, including then-Indian Affairs Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), wanted tribes to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to earn recognition. The scandal of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had a collection of high-paying Indian clients, also put a crimp on Native American issues on Capitol Hill.

Tribes are typically recognized through the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a lengthy process that can take more than a decade to complete. A tribe must detail its membership criteria, provide a chronicle of its cultural and political history and be in continual existence since 1900.

Compiling all the necessary documents takes an average of eight years. After they’re submitted, the BIA’s review process lasts at least another two. As they’ve lobbied the Hill, all six tribes on the bill have also gone through the BIA petition process.

“We would like to see them move faster, as they would like to see us move faster,” said Lee Fleming, director of the Interior Department’s Federal Acknowledgement Office.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee passed legislation granting federal recognition to the 55,000-member Lumbee tribe of North Carolina in May. The Virginia tribes, which are a fraction of that size, hope the movement is an indication that the committee will take their bill up next.

But some Members, including Warner, remain concerned that a federal recognition bill could open up gaming rights for the tribes, which he opposes.

The House measure that passed last year does not grant the Virginia tribes the ability to operate casinos, but Senators remain skeptical.

“While [Warner] supports tribal recognition, he is concerned that the bill as drafted could produce the unintended consequence of allowing Virginia Indian tribes greater rights to conduct gambling activities beyond the limitations currently established under Virginia’s laws,” a Warner spokeswoman said.

Chickahominy Chief Stephen Adkins, who isn’t related to Wayne Adkins, said none of the tribes on the bill wants gaming rights.

“Philosophically, we don’t perceive it as the right thing to do. Get-rich schemes aren’t the right thing to do,” he said.

A Rich History

The Upper Mattaponi, like Virginia’s other tribes, can trace its roots back to the Powhatan tribe living in the middle of the state alongside English settlers in the 1600s.

Today many of the Upper Mattaponi members live near the tribe’s 32 acres of land in Virginia’s middle peninsula. Members of the five other tribes on the bill also live in the area. (Virginia’s two other Indian tribes, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, while also recognized by the state, are not on the federal legislation.)

With a rich history, the Upper Mattaponi’s Sharon Indian School is the oldest Native American school in the entire state. Built in 1919, with a new building replacing the original in 1952, the school served all the tribe’s children until 1965, when the state’s schools were integrated.

The school was returned to the Upper Mattaponi in 1987; it is listed on the Virginia Landmarks Register and the National Register of Historic Buildings.

Ken Adams of the Upper Mattaponi tribe was a student at the Sharon Indian School. The white high school, King William High, was just two miles down Route 30, but until Adams reached high school age in the mid-1960s, it was off-limits to Native Americans.

“The integration caused us to lose a sense of our community,” said Adams, a retired 24-year veteran of the Air Force, who was only one of two Native Americans in his graduating class. “When we were placed in other schools, we lost some of our connection.”

In an effort to reconnect, several members are studying the tribe’s native language, the Algonquin, “so that we don’t lose our common tongue,” Adams noted.

The Chickahominy in nearby Charles City County, Va., has also launched a language and history class for its younger members, and all six tribes use their Baptist churches as a main gathering place for worship and community activities.

The Virginia tribes had a stint in the limelight last year when the commonwealth marked the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown.

Welcoming the queen of England for the celebration in a traditional Native American ceremony and donning feathered headdresses, the state’s half-dozen tribes vying for federal recognition expected the events and attention would spark rapid legislative action in both chambers on Capitol Hill.

Indeed, the House passed the recognition bill the week before the Jamestown celebration, but the Senate has failed to act in the year since.

“That had been kind of a milestone,” Wayne Adkins said of the Jamestown celebration. “We felt we should have recognition before that date. [But] it didn’t seem that Jamestown was as important to people outside the state.”

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