Challenge filed against Pamunkey's federal recognition

A California-based casino gaming watchdog has filed a last-minute challenge to the Interior Board of Indian Appeals, asking that the federal recognition awarded to the Pamunkey Indian Tribe be reconsidered.

The challenge filed Tuesday – the final day available to appeal -- by Stand Up for California claims the Pamunkeys did not meet criteria needed for federal recognition.

The Interior Board of Indian Appeals must now take up the case.

“It’s nothing personal with the tribe, it’s all about the process,” said Cheryl A. Schmit, Stand Up for California’s director, in a Friday interview.

Schmit said the Pamunkey failed to show current members descended from the historical Indian tribe, and the tribe has not maintained political influence or authority over its members. Both criteria are needed for federal recognition.

Relaxing criteria for the Pamunkey could create a precedent for future decisions deciding federal recognition, she said.

“It’s a very serious and solemn decision when the Department of Interior makes these recognitions,” Schmit said. “They should be concerned about the integrity of these decisions.”

Pamunkey Indian Chief Robert Gray said the appeal is “baseless,” and the tribe plans to continue to fight for federal recognition.

“We have to provide rebuttal in a relatively short time frame,” Gray said. “It’s going to keep us busy.”

In July, the Department of Interior announced it will make the Pamunkey the first federally recognized tribe in Virginia. The decision was pending a 90-day appeal period.

The Pamunkey have occupied present-day King William County since before European colonization, and the group considers Pocahontas as an ancestor.

At the time the Department of Interior’s recognition was announced, then-Pamunkey-chief Kevin Brown said the tribe found minutes from council meetings dating as far back as 1899 scattered throughout the homes on the reservation.

The 203-member tribe would join the 566 other tribal nations nationwide if the appeal is denied. A timetable for the Interior Board of Indian Appeals to hear the appeal was unknown on Friday.

The Pamunkey tribe first began seeking federal recognition in 1982.

After years of roadblocks, the Pamunkey filed its letter of intent to petition the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2009. Researchers from the University of Florida also drafted a petition that documented the Pamunkey Indian Tribe’s history and genealogy dating back to 1787.

The Pamunkey received active consideration three years later in August 2012 and the group earned preliminary federal recognition in January 2014.

That preliminary recognition meant the Bureau of Indian Affairs needed to review records and documents submitted by the Pamunkey only one more time before granting full recognition.

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

It would also open the door for the tribe to open casinos and gas stations selling tax-free cigarettes.

Brown has said the Pamunkey have no interest in opening a casino.

Still, the prospect of federal recognition placed the Pamunkey in Stand Up for California’s cross hairs.

“It could create jobs, but in turn, that economic development will create unfair competition with non-tribal businesses because different rules apply,” Schmit said.

In California, casinos are big business where 110 Indian tribes are recognized and another 81 groups are petitioning for federal recognition. The state is home to 70 casinos, she said.

“I don’t know if (casino discussions) are happening with the Pamunkey … but we want to make sure every decision is scrutinized,” Schmit said.

Gray, the tribe’s chief, said the group’s sole focus is on gaining federal recognition.

Brauchle can be reached at 757-846-4361.

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