Senate, House consider Indians

Published 11:54 pm Friday, February 18, 2011

Recognition: Chief Barry Bass of the Nansemond Indian Tribe looks out over the river named after his ancestors at Lone Star Lakes Park in January. Virginia senators have re-introduced a bill to have the Nansemonds and five other Virginia tribes recognized on a federal level.

In what has become something of a rite of spring, U.S. senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner have reintroduced legislation whose passage would result in federal recognition of the Nansemonds and five other Virginia Indian tribes.

Federal recognition would recognize the tribes’ sovereignty in dealing with the federal government and would qualify them for benefits provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies.

“This is a really about an affirmation of who we are,” Stephen Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe, told the Associated Baptist Press last summer. “Federal recognition would acknowledge that we are a sovereign nation and were here to greet the first English settlers, who everyone agrees could not have survived without us.”

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The Chickahominy and Nansemond Indians are among six tribes that state and federal officials have been lobbying on behalf of for years. Recognition is also sought for the Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Monacan Indians.

Legislation similar to that which has been introduced to the Senate this year was approved by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last year, but it never received a full vote in the Senate. Companion legislation was approved by the full U.S. House of Representatives during the 110th and 111th Congresses.

“We’re just still trying, still working on it,” Nansemond Chief Barry Bass said Friday. “All that mess the last time, and we have to start over.”

The federal government has recognized more than 500 different Indian tribes from around the nation, but Virginia tribes have had a hard time securing the official acknowledgement, because an administrative decision to do so by the Bureau of Indian Affairs would require documentation that the current tribal members have a continuous line of descent from the historical tribe.

That documentation no longer exists for the Virginia tribes because of Walter Plecker, a white supremacist who was the registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912-1946.

Claiming that Indians had become a “mongrel race,” Plecker replaced “Indian” with “black” on all of the birth and death certificates that came through his office. His deeds ensured that no modern Indians would be able to prove their blood connections to their race.

Further complicating matters is the fact that the Virginia tribes’ peace treaties were with England and not the United States, which was able to use the treaties signed with western tribes as a basis for recognition in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“I am convinced that legislation is perhaps the only way to bring fairness to these tribes, due to the complicated history between Virginia’s tribes and England, which began before American independence, and also due to unique racial laws in Virginia that existed well into the 20th century,” Webb said in a press release announcing the bill’s introduction to the Senate on Friday.

“Racially-hostile laws formerly in effect in Virginia — including anti-miscegenation laws from 1691 to 1967 — have had a devastating impact on tribes seeking federal recognition. As such, normal administrative procedures have been insufficient in resolving an issue of historic dignity and fairness.”

“I have been supportive of federal recognition of these Native American tribes since I had the honor of serving as Governor,” Warner said in the release. “Their contribution to Virginia and America’s history is clear, and I look forward to continuing to work for Senate passage of this federal recognition.”

The bill also has been reintroduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Jim Moran, who has worked to secure its passage since 1999. He was joined locally by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Norfolk).