Feds closer to recognizing tribe

Published 9:20 pm Friday, October 23, 2009

The Nansemond Indian Tribe is only one step away from federal recognition.

A bill to grant federal recognition to the Nansemond and five other Virginia tribes needs only a majority vote on the Senate floor, expected soon, to pass. The status would qualify the tribes — the Nansemond, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Monacan tribes — for benefits through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies.

The bill passed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Thursday, the last step before a full Senate vote. The House of Representatives passed a companion bill on June 3.

“Support for these six Virginia tribes has been voiced many times during the 15 years since they began seeking federal recognition,” Senator Jim Webb, sponsor of the bill, said in a statement to the committee Thursday. “I strongly believe that recognition for these six Virginia tribes is justified based on principles of dignity and fairness.”

“Naturally, I’m very excited that we finally got through the House,” said Chief Barry Bass when the House measure passed in June. “I’m optimistic that we can get the rest of the way … it’s just long overdue.”

The Nansemond Indians originally lived along the Nansemond River, and were part of the Powhatan empire. In 1607, the tribe had about 1,200 people, according to a history of the tribe on its Web site, www.nansemond.org.

In 1638, an Englishman named John Bass and a Nansemond convert to Christianity named Elizabeth were married. Later that century, however, the Nansemonds split apart, with the Christian Nansemonds staying on the Nansemond River and the others fleeing southwest to the Nottoway River after warring with the English. In 1806, the last of those Nansemonds died, leaving only the Christianized Nansemonds remaining.

In the 1720s, the Nansemonds moved to an area northeast of the Great Dismal Swamp, where game was more plentiful and English settlers fewer, according to the Web site.

In the 1920s, the Nansemonds tried to reorganize, but the effort did not work because of prejudices toward non-whites. However, after the Civil Rights Era, the tribe finally organized and got recognition as a tribe from the state in 1984.

If the Nansemonds become recognized federally, members of the tribe will be eligible for a variety of services provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a division of the U.S. Department of the Interior. The services include geographical information, educational partnerships, guidance for self-governance, training and other services.

The legislation that would give the tribe federal recognition specifically bars any of the six Indian groups from building a casino on their land in Virginia.