Time for recognition

Published 9:58 pm Friday, April 4, 2014

A U.S. Senate committee has recommended federal recognition of the Nansemond Indian tribe and five other Indian tribes in Virginia.

Members of the Nansemond tribe are pleased with the action, announced this week by Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. But they’re careful to measure their excitement, as the tribe has been down this road before.

Although Virginia’s Indian tribes have been successful before in convincing the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to recommend federal recognition, the full Senate has balked at approving the measure, directing Virginia’s tribes to pursue recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the same route taken by other Indian tribes around the nation.

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But Virginia’s tribes are unable to provide the documentation that current tribal members have a continuous line of descent from the historical tribes because of Walter Plecker, who was the registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. Plecker replaced “Indian” with “black” for the race on many birth and death certificates that passed through his office, ensuring that no official documentation exists for many tribal members to prove their relationship to ancestors. The phenomenon has come to be known as Pleckerism, and it represents a truly disgusting bit of administrative chicanery by a government official.

Virginia has officially recognized Virginia’s Indian tribes, but the U.S. Senate has a chance now to finally make amends with them for Pleckerism. Recognition of the tribes in Virginia — the first people Europeans encountered upon reaching the New World and the first people to call this place home — would help restore the identity that a truly hateful and bigoted man began tearing from them a century ago.

Whether or not the Nansemond, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Monacan tribes ever are federally recognized, their people remain proud of the heritage that has been passed from one generation to another. Federal recognition would send a message that the nation is also proud of these First Peoples, their heritage and the important place they hold in Virginia’s — and the nation’s — history.