Change the relationship

Published 11:16 pm Friday, July 29, 2011

Considering the fact that they’re in the middle of a highly charged debate on whether and how to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, United States senators will be unlikely to consider legislation early next week on extending federal recognition to six Virginia Indian tribes. Just getting a resolution to the debt crisis will be hard enough in a capital city where politics have divided people lately more than ever in recent memory.

But once the politics are laid aside, the debt default is averted and both houses of Congress return to doing their jobs after the August break, there’s a chance that Virginia’s Native Americans can finally get the recognition that has eluded them ever since the “paper genocide” of Walter Plecker denied them proof of their heritage.

Plecker, a white supremacist who served as the registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946, replaced the word “Indian” with the word “black” on birth and death certificates that came through his office. The result was that Indians trying to trace their lineage in Virginia found a gap larger than a generation that kept them from making ancestral connections.


Email newsletter signup

Plecker’s actions still affect Virginia’s Indian tribes today, as proof of heritage is one of the things the Bureau of Indian Affairs requires for a decision favoring federal recognition of a tribe. And without federal recognition, Virginia’s tribes have no access to the federal funds and programs designed to help improve the lives of Native Americans all over America.

That’s why it’s so important for congressional leaders to act on the legislation before the end of this term. In past years, federal recognition of Virginia’s tribes has failed to come to a vote in the Senate, despite getting passed along by a committee and despite support in the House of Representatives. This year, with the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs having approved the bill this week, the full Senate can make a real difference in the lives of those affiliated with the Virginia tribes by voting on the measure before time runs out once again.

For members of those six tribes — the Nansemond, the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock and the Monacan — federal recognition would be about more than just money. It would also be about pride.

These were among the first Indian people that Europeans settling in America would ever encounter. And yet their heritage has been one of humiliation and treachery. It’s time for America to change the relationship. It’s time for the Senate to act.