One step closer

Published 11:05 pm Thursday, July 28, 2011

Recognition: Nansemond Indian Tribe Chief Barry Bass looks over his ancestral land in January. A U.S. Senate committee voted Thursday to extend recognition to the Nansemonds and five other Virginia tribes. The measure still must be voted on by the full Senate.

Bill to recognize Nansemonds passes Senate committee

The Nansemond Indian Tribe received a bit of good — and somewhat unexpected — news on Thursday.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs approved a bill that would grant federal recognition to six Indian tribes in Virginia, including the Nansemond. The measure now moves to the full U.S. Senate for approval.

“I’m very thankful,” Chief Barry Bass said on Thursday evening. “It’s something that’s long overdue. We kind of thought we were just hung up.”


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The tribes — which also include the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock and the Monacan — already are recognized by the state of Virginia. Federal recognition would qualify the tribes for certain benefits provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other federal agencies.

“After meeting with leaders of Virginia’s Indian tribes and years of thorough investigation of the facts, I strongly believe that recognition for these six Virginia tribes is justified based on principles of dignity and fairness,” said Sen. Jim Webb, who introduced the legislation.

“We must honor the heritage of our Virginia tribes, a heritage aggravated in the past by racial hostility and state-sanctioned actions that greatly diminished their cultural identity.”

The federal government has recognized more than 500 different Indian tribes around the country, but Virginia tribes have not yet received recognition.

That recognition usually comes through an administrative decision by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but such a decision requires documentation that the current tribal members have a continuous line of descent from the historical tribes.

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

Plecker replaced “Indian” with “black” on all of the birth and death certificates that came through his office, ensuring that no official documentation existed for the modern Indians to prove their blood connections.

The bill has passed this committee in past Congresses, but a full vote in the Senate has been prevented by senators who believed the tribes should have to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Similar bills have passed the full House of Representatives in several past years. A companion measure currently is working its way through that house.