Time for recognition

Published 9:21 pm Monday, August 30, 2010

The Virginia Council of Churches wants the United States Senate to get moving and approve a bill that would grant federal recognition to six of Virginia’s Native American tribes. It could be the last time there’s a good chance of the bill’s passage for a generation or more, church members say, and the time to make the step to tribal recognition came around long ago.

For members of the Nansemond, Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Eastern Chickahominy and Monacan tribes, federal recognition would enable them to receive services through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Even more important, perhaps, would be the patent federal admission that there are descendants today of the people who originally occupied the land that we now know as a portion of Hampton Roads.

This is no call for reparations, as we believe that such remedies for past sins to be impractical, unconstitutional and inherently unfair in their own right. It is, however, a call for a frank acknowledgement of the place that Virginia’s Native Americans have in the nation’s history. Nearly all the world has heard of the great chief Powhatan, but many of the nations that he ruled in this part of the New World have never received their due from the American government.

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There is currently a level of support for tribal recognition that is unique in the history of the proposal. Never since the bill was introduced had Virginia’s entire congressional delegation supported tribal recognition. Today, they do, along with all of the state’s living governors. That universal support, buttressed as it is by votes from both Democrats and Republicans, cannot be frittered away. The time for action is, indeed, right now.

Senators Mark Warner and Jim Webb should heed the call they heard recently from the Council of Churches, whose 32 signatories, representing 2.5 million church members, seek nothing but the fair and Christian treatment of Virginia’s tribes.

“It’s very clear that our tribes have been here, they’ve continued to be here, and they’ve struggled to be here against incredible odds,” said Jonathan Barton, general minister for the organization. That tribal commitment cries out for a similar commitment from the U.S. government.