Virginia Indians Recognition Bill Passes Committee

Virginia Indians Recognition Bill Passes Committee

Kimberley has been a filmmaker since her early years of college. While at school she was doing some research about her heritage and came to an alarming conclusion.

Date Posted: 
2009-05-18 10:38

Blog Series:

The Washington Times: Sunday, May 17, 2009

"Virginia Indian tribes seek U.S. recognition"

Progress on the bill this year has been steady so far, if not swift. Mr. Moran again introduced the legislation March 9, and the bill was heard by the House Committee on Natural Resources nine days later.

The committee unanimously voted to pass the bill April 22, clearing the way for it to be sent to the House floor.

"Frankly, it's a matter of pride. And pride is the greatest motivator really," Mr. Moran told The Washington Times. "You want to be recognized. It's a legacy they want to leave for their children and grandchildren."

Mr. Webb introduced the Senate's version of Mr. Moran's bill in 2008. A spokeswoman for Virginia's senior senator said members of Mr. Webb's office in February accompanied Mr. Dorgan's committee staff on visits to the tribal grounds of those seeking recognition.

"Our office continues to work with the committee to lay the groundwork in preparation for introduction of the federal recognition legislation in the Senate," Webb spokeswoman Jessica Smith said.

The recent legislative progress has bred optimism among members of the affected tribes, although they remain cautious — perhaps because of the pace of a government battling other priorities, or perhaps because their history has taught them the pitfalls of trusting too much.

Mr. Adkins said his tribe — allies of the paramount chief Powhatan, whose daughter, Pocahontas, married Virginia tobacco pioneer John Rolfe — signed its last treaty with the local colonists in 1677.

Through the years, colonial expansion and trading led to lost homeland, until the Chickahominy began to migrate back to their current location, based in Providence Forge halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg.

More recently, in the halls of Congress, the possibility that the tribes were seeking federal recognition to make a foray into the gambling industry led to concerns from lawmakers like Rep. Frank Wolf and former Sen. John Warner, Virginia Republicans.

The bill now prohibits the tribes from entering the gaming industry, Mr. Moran said. Mr. Wolf said he cautiously supports the measure but is worried about what may happen regarding gambling if the bill reaches a conference committee.

"I will vote for it, although I am worried that there'll be a bait and switch," Mr. Wolf told The Times. Mr. Adkins said that worry always has been irrelevant for groups that consider themselves deeply religious. Across from the Chickahominy Tribal Center in Providence Forge is a red-brick Baptist church that at one time housed an Indian school and now has more than 200 members.

"I know we're in a better position than we've ever been in, but there's always something out there that could trip us up," Mr. Adkins said of the pending legislation.

The preferred method

There isn't a single route to earning federal recognition: Of the 562 federally recognized tribes in the United States, a vast majority have gained the status through past treaties with the American government, the passage of a statute or the issuance of an executive order.

However, in 1978, the Department of the Interior set up what some see as the preferred process for tribes to gain recognized status, in order "to acknowledge that a government-to-government relationship exists between the United States and tribes which have existed since first contact with non-Indians," according to a 1997 document of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is in charge of the process.

"There had to be some kind of accountability if there was a system set up where members of an Indian tribe were to benefit," said Lee Fleming, head of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment within the bureau and a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. "It's a process that requires documentation so that an informed decision can be made regarding these groups."

The bureau's process requires tribes to meet a list of seven stringent criteria that mandates they validate their existence throughout American history with extensive documentation like birth records, marriage licenses, membership lists and censuses. Other areas of proof can include records tied to individual tribal members, like a family Bible.

The tribes submit such evidence to the acknowledgment office, which works to validate the claims and make a final determination through a process that involves technical review and is subject to appeal.

On average, it takes roughly eight years for tribes to fully develop their petition for federal acknowledgment and nearly five years for the office to make a decision, according to data analysis by the Government Accountability Office.

The data-gathering process can cost $830,000 annually, according to 2006 data published in the Federal Register. Since its inception, the Department of the Interior has granted acknowledgment to 16 tribes and denied it to 28 others.

Some of the tribes included in the Moran bill have at least started the executive branch process. But members say they have been discouraged by the time frame for completion and the costs involved in producing the required research.

"That is a time-consuming process. And some people will say that's none of their business," Chief Adams said. "If every person in the U.S. were forced to submit their genealogies to the federal government, there would be an uprising. But it's OK to force the Indians to do it."

The Virginia tribes also refer to what Mr. Moran and others refer to as a "paper genocide." In 1924, the state passed the Racial Integrity Act, which officials have said forced Indians to identify themselves as "colored" and led to the destruction and alteration of genealogical records.

The effort was led by Walter Plecker, the first registrar of Virginia's Bureau of Vital Statistics, and has been cited by the tribes' advocates as a main obstacle to their pursuit of recognition through the executive process.

"That's why they have a particularly difficult task of meeting the BIA requirements," Mr. Moran said.

But Mr. Fleming points to more than 20 tribal records sent to his office — including birth certificates signed by Plecker himself — that show "Indian" designated on the document.

"These records were not destroyed, and this is just a scratch of the surface," Mr. Fleming said. "It just is an example of how the objective factual information has greater weight than subjective statements that aren't backed by documents."

Mr. Adkins said the records were only a small sampling of the roughly 4,000 members in the six tribes. Still, Mr. Fleming stressed the importance of a process that provides evidence for claims that could be a gateway to millions of dollars in funding.

For example, Malcolm Webber, a man known also as Grand Chief Thunderbird IV, was sentenced last year after enlisting illegal immigrants to join his tribe and defrauding them of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Webber had previously tried to gain federal recognition for a tribe through the bureau's process, but was denied.

Mr. Fleming also pointed to a forged 1845 census of New York Indians, and the creation of a fictitious diary and altered death certificate. With federal recognition providing some groups with a gateway into the gambling industry, Mr. Fleming said the need for vigilance is paramount.

"This is an important cause," he said. "But it is something that needs to be based on the documentation and not on emotion, not on guilt."

A means to an end

The effect of achieving federal recognition likely would not be seen right away among the Virginia tribes, and it could create the added burden of finding qualified people to help write grants and facilitate the funding application process.

But it would provide a foundation for what tribal members see as longer-term success.

At a March conference of the Virginia Council on Indians held at the Chickahominy Tribal Center in Providence Forge, Sharon Bryant — a member of the Monacan Indian Nation's tribal council — discussed how she helped form an economic development committee to invest in tribal businesses.

One of the ventures simply involves stocking a convenience store, but portions of the proceeds go back to the tribe in small increments. Access to additional grants could create other opportunities for tribes to benefit themselves, Ms. Bryant said.

"I'm hoping that there would be access to grants and programs … to encourage people to live their dreams," she said.

Tribal members also could become eligible for homeowner's assistance, said Dana Martin Johnson, a law professor at the University of Richmond, former Virginia assistant attorney general and a member of the Sappony Tribe of North Carolina.

"It gives them so many more opportunities — even things like the trickle-down effect," she said.

Other options the tribes could explore with the aid of federal recognition include health clinics, community centers and the relative luxury of having paid employees work for their respective governments.

They are things that can be taken for granted by the average American citizen, even though many tribal members live precisely the same way.

"It's hard to explain to people sometimes who say, 'How are you different? You drive a car, live in a house, go to work,'" Mr. Adkins said. "It's more an internal thing I guess, and the sense of community we have with each other, our common heritage. That's something people can't necessarily see."

The recognition effort comes back to that sense of pride — a reverence for ties rooted in a unique heritage that gradually have become part of an even larger history.

In the small brick schoolhouse in King William that now serves as the tribal center for the Upper Mattaponi, Chief Adams points to a board listing the many tribal members who have served in the U.S. military.

More than 20 members of the Eastern Chickahominy alone have served in the military since World War I, Chief Gene Adkins said.

It is for those past and future members that federal recognition has become an intrinsic end for the tribes: To be recognized is a goal in and of itself.

"It's something that I really would like to see happen as a sign of respect," said Lee Lovelace, a member of the Upper Mattaponi and a Virginia Tech student. "From that there will be opportunities … but I think that the No. 1 thing is to recognize that we're here and a living, breathing race."

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