Time for recognition

Published 11:05 pm Saturday, October 24, 2009

For so many Americans, the only exposure they have had to the first citizens of the North American continent has been through television and movie representations of backwards heathens wearing warpaint and feathers while riding across the plains in search of the scalps of European settlers.

Residents of Southeastern Virginia are fortunate to have ample opportunity to learn the other side of Native American history. Few parts of this area of the state were untouched by Powhatan’s great empire, and — though the Indian king and his subjects were finally conquered by the Europeans, by broken treaties and by intermarriage with the white people whose ships brought them to American shores in droves — many descendants still live in the area today and do their best to retain some of the traditions of their fathers.

Public powwows, Native American museums and a growing sensitivity to the injustices that were perpetrated against the Indian peoples have all helped Native Americans in the area retain a sense of their identities, both as descendants of the original citizens of this continent and as full-fledged citizens of modern America.

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But the nation can and should do more.

To that end, Virginia’s congressional representatives have pressed in recent years for federal recognition of six of the state’s active and confirmed tribes — the Nansemond, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Monacan tribes.

Today, each of those tribes is but a shadow of what it once was. Membership levels are far below their peak, only a couple have active reservations and poverty is a significant problem for those that do maintain reservations.

Federal recognition of the tribes would qualify them for benefits from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies, giving members resources to learn to overcome the injustices of racism and discrimination that plagued them for generations, contributing to their depressed plight.

True reparations for this group would be impossible to provide and would put the nation on a philosophically slippery slope that would ultimately endanger the American republic.

But the small step of federal recognition would go a long way toward restoring Native American pride and righting some of the wrongs that were committed in the past.

It’s time for America to do the right thing by Virginia’s Native Americans. The United States Senate now has before it a bill that would take that step of recognition. Senators should make sure that bill passes, and quickly.