U.S. officially recognizes Pamunkey tribe

KING WILLIAM – The federal government has officially extended recognition to the Pamunkey Indian tribe, whose members have lived in King William County since the before European colonization.

It is the first Virginia tribe to achieve such recognition.

In the wake of the announcement Pamunkey Indian Chief Kevin Brown, who has helped the tribe's 30-year quest for such recognition, tendered his resignation as chief.

“Its been a long hard road in getting the federal recognition, and I’m passing the torch to another member,” he said, adding that it is time forsomeone else to take up their own cause to advance the tribe.

Under Pamunky law, Assistant Chief Robert Gray will take over as chief.

The tribe, which has 203 members, has proven that it meets seven mandatory criteria for federal recognition and will join the 566 other tribal nations across the country that are recognized by the federal government.

The process included collecting historical governing documents, tracing the lineage of tribe members and proving that the tribe has lived as a distinct community with it's own political influence since 1900, according to a press release from the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Brown said the Pamunkey were lucky to find minutes from council meetings dating as far back as 1899 scattered throughout the homes on the reservation.

“This work reflects the most solemn responsibilities of the United States,” said Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Our professional historians, anthropologists, and genealogists spent thousands of hours of staff time researching and applying our rigorous acknowledgment criteria to these petitions.”

Decades of challenges

The Pamunkey first applied for full federal recognition in 1982, Brown said.

At that time, the tribe was drafting a petition to file at the BIA with the assistance of the Native American Rights Fund, a non-profit that raises money through donations, but the fund ran out of money and interest waned.

The Pamunkey, unlike their neighbors in the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, elected not to pursue recognition through legislation because the tribe found the BIA’s requirement of tracing their ancestry back to the 19th century to be a difficult task.

Tracing tribal ancestry has proven difficult in Virginia because of the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which declared interracial marriages illegal and classified all Virginians as white or black. Known as “paper genocide,” some say this state-imposed policy left gaps in the Virginia tribes’ historical record.

Finally in the 1990s, the tribe again began working with the Native American Rights Fund and a legal firm in Colorado, Tilden McCoy LLP. The Pamunkey also received a grant from the Administration for Native Americans.

In 2009 the Pamunkey filed its letter of intent to petition the BIA in 2009. Researchers from the University of Florida also drafted a petition that documented the Pamunkey Indian Tribe’s history and geneology dating back to 1787.

The Pamunkey received active consideration three years later in August 2012. In January 2014, the tribe earned preliminary federal recognition, meaning the BIA needed to review records and documents submitted by the Pamunkey only one more time before granting full recognition.

The BIA’s original March 30, 2015 deadline for a final determination was also extended, forcing the Pamunkey to endure further delays.

While the Pamunkey received overwhelming support for their struggle to achieve federal recognition, some tribes have faced oppostion over the years.

Interestingly enough, the national organization that often expressed the most opposition to tribes is the Association of American Convenience Stores. The AACS fears that federally acknowledged tribes will result in competition for stores already located near reservations if a tribe decided to open a similar business on tribal lands, the reason being tribes would not have to charge taxes and a store could under prices.

In an opposition statment by Michael J. O’Connor, president of the Virginia Petroleum and Grocery Association, O’Conner said federally recognized tribes in other states have done just that: Sell tobacco and gasoline to non-tribal members tax-free.

“As of today, there is nothing to stop the Pamunkeys (sic) from reopening Colonial Downs as a casino, or acquiring convenience stores and selling gasoline or cigarettes without collecting the state tax,” O’Connor said in the statement. “This unfortunate decision by one unelected bureaucrat will have widespread unfortunate ramifications for all Virginians.”

In January, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus voiced their opposition to federal recognition of the Pamunkey, asking Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to postpone the decision until the Justice Department investigated alleged discriminatory practices by the tribe.

The point of contention was in regard to an old tribal law which stated, “No member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe shall intermarry with anny (sic) Nation except White or Indian under penalty of forfeiting their rights in Town.”

Brown said the tribe repealed the law in 2012.

“We hadn’t enforced that law in generations and did away with it before it got out,” Brown said.

The common rationale for the ban on intermixture is that it was rooted in Virginia’s culture of racism which at the time used racial intermixture as a means to deprive Native Americans of their ancestral lands and status.

Legislators react to recognition

Brown said Gov. Terry McAuliffe called him to personally congratulate the Pamunkey on their historic achievement.

In a statement issued by the Office of the Governor, McAuliffe lauded the decision, calling it a “historic day in Virginia.”

“I want to congratulate members of the Pamunkey tribe on their tireless efforts to ensure that they receive the federal recognition that they deserve,” McAuliffe said in the statement. “ The governor’s statement also said he has supported federal recognition of the Pamunkey and recently sent a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affair backing their efforts.

“I look forward to continuing to work with this administration and our Virginia congressional delegation to ensure that the six other tribes will soon receive the federal recognition that is long-overdue,” McAuliffe continuted.

McAuliffe said he hopes the Pamunkey tribe’s achievement will help enact the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, a bipartisan bill that would grant federal recognition to the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi—also located in King William County, Rappahannock, Monacan, and Nansemond Indian tribes. These tribes have been recognized by the state, but not the federal government.

In a joint statement, Virginia's U.S. Senators, Mark Warner and Tim Kaine hailed the announcement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Warner and Kaine are also cooperating on the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act.

“I congratulate the Pamunkey Indian Tribe on finally receiving this long-overdue federal recognition,” Warner said in the statement. “This historic milestone also reminds us of the work that remains before us to correct the injustices committed against Virginia Indian tribes. Senator Kaine and I will keep urging our colleagues in the Senate to pass our legislation to ensure that the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe--Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Monacan Indian Nation, and the Nansemond Indian Tribe also get the federal recognition that they deserve.”

Kaine concurred.

“I’m thrilled the Pamunkey will finally receive the federal recognition they deserve,” said Kaine, who submitted comments to the BIA in October calling for greater flexibility in the federal recognition process. “Federal recognition both honors the Pamunkey’s identity and makes its members eligible for well-earned benefits including housing, education and health-care funding. The Pamunkey are the first Virginia Indian tribe to receive federal recognition, over 400 years after making contact with the first European settlers.”

The senators' bill passed its first procedural test when it was approve by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Members of the King William County Board of Supervisors also commended the Pamunkey on their achievement.

“I think it’s a great victory for the tribe, which made the first contact with British settlers 400 years ago, to finally have federal recognition,” said District 2 Supervisor Travis Moskalski.

Pushing forward

Full federal recognition now allows Pamunkey tribal members to apply for a variety of programs, such as health and housing services, and higher-learning opportunities.

For example, since tribal members’ land was held in a state trust, it was difficult for an individual to build a home on the reservation. Once the Pamunkey’s land is moved into a federal trust, tribal members will be eligable for federal housing funds under a program provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Brown said there is a 90-day waiting period before tribal members can begin benefitting from such programs and it may be years before the Pamunkey are able to construct buildings they’re provided funding for, such as a health clinic. However, Brown said the Pamunkey are eligible to use facilities and services at the reservations of other federally recognized tribes.

Brown also quelled suspicions by many that the Pamunkey were planning to build a casino, which is permitted under full recognition.

“Look around,” Brown said gesturing to the line of trees and rows of crops that make up a sizable portion of land on the reservation. “There’s no place for a casino here.” Brown also said the Pamunkey hired a consultant to examine whether or not the reservation’s thouroughfares could handle the traffic a casino would undoubtedly bring. It was determined the investment from reconstructing roads and building a casino would not be feasible.

Brown also noted the Pamunkey began pursuing federal recognition in 1982—six years before the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1988.

“More than any thing,” Brown said, “being recognized is historic vindication. Virginia tried to write us out, and this decision vidicates not only the Pamunkey, but every tribe that made up the Powhatan Confederacy; it gives our people legitimacy and it will benefit them down the road.”

When asked about the relevance of the decision coinciding with Independence day, Brown chuckled.

“I hadn’t thought about that,” he said smiling. “I guess maybe there’s a little bit of poetic justice there.”

McMillan can be reached by phone at 757-298-4136.

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