Tide turning for Nansemonds

Published 9:56 pm Saturday, February 19, 2011

This could be the time that everything finally comes together for the Nansemond Indians. After years of effort, members of the tribe finally convinced the Suffolk City Council in November to agree to give the tribe a portion of Lone Star Lakes Park for a proposed recreated Indian village that would be built on land that belonged to the Indians before Europeans ever set foot on Virginia soil.

And now, in what has become an annual ritual, Congress is considering legislation that would finally grant federal recognition to the Nansemonds and five other Virginia tribes. That recognition is long overdue, and the story of its denial is a shameful chapter of Virginia history that most folks from Virginia seem to want to put behind them.

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.

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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 to 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 forefathers.

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.

Last year, the U.S. House of Representatives acknowledged the injustice that continues to be perpetrated on Virginia’s Indian tribes and voted to help them restore their heritage by giving them federal recognition. Despite a committee recommendation that senators be given the opportunity to do the same, Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., held the legislation up, suggesting that the Bureau of Indian Affairs should more rightly handle the issue, despite the fact that the Nansemonds could never provide the documentation that agency requires.

Four hundred years ago, Europeans invaded Nansemond territory and, by most accounts, attacked the tribe in its camps. Nearly 100 years ago, Walter Plecker set out to destroy the only thing the tribe had left — its native identity.

It’s time for the federal government to set things right again. It’s time for Tom Coburn and the rest of the Senate to follow Virginia’s lead and offer the Nansemond Indians peace once again.