Virginia tribes deserve recognition

Published 8:51 pm Wednesday, December 10, 2014

By Sen. Tim Kaine

Millions of children know the story of Pocahontas. They know that, thanks to the help of the Powhatan tribe, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas survived when others had failed.

As Virginians, we know Indian tribes have played an integral role in the Commonwealth and the country’s history from the very beginning. The Monacans, who call Amherst County home, have lived in Virginia for an astounding 10,000 years.

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Yet even today, the federal government has yet to recognize any of Virginia’s historic tribes.

Many of the Virginia Indian tribes were situated here in 1607, when Jamestown was founded, or earlier and have maintained their identities for thousands of years. Today, the majority of Virginians, all eight living Virginia governors, and the entire bipartisan congressional delegation support federal recognition.

But despite this, the tribes still haven’t received the same recognition the federal government has granted to more than 500 similar tribes in America.

Federal recognition would acknowledge and protect the identities of the tribes. It would also guarantee their people access to much-needed health care and emergency assistance, and allow their children to attend federal Indian schools and universities, among many other benefits.

The absence of federal recognition has not been for lack of trying. In fact, many tribes have vigorously pursued paths to recognition through the administrative process but have found it to be inefficient, expensive and confusing.

The federal process, which is run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, uses a one-size-fits-all system that fails to account for extraordinary circumstances like the barriers Virginia tribes have often encountered.

Tribes are required to provide the federal government with birth and death records dating back more than 100 years. This is greatly complicated by the fact that five of the six courthouses that held the vast majority of the Virginia tribes’ records were burned during the Civil War. Many of the records that survived the Civil War were later systematically altered as part of an official Virginia state policy known as the Racial Integrity Act of 1924.

This ill-conceived legislation established only two races in Virginia: “white” and “colored.” During the nearly 50-year period in which the law remained in force, Virginia’s tribes were forbidden to list their race as Native American. A man named Walter Plecker led a massive effort to systematically classify Native Americans as “colored” in official records.

Certainly this shameful chapter of our Commonwealth’s history warrants an exception in the federal recognition process, yet none has been granted.

Yet another challenge Virginia Indian tribes face on the path to recognition is equally baffling: The tribes made peace with their neighbors too soon. The Virginia tribes entered into the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677 with the English, earning them official recognition from England 100 years before American independence.

Ironically, if the Virginia tribes had waited another hundred years to make peace with the settlers, the United States would have recognized them long ago, because tribes that established treaties during the first 150 years after Independence were considered recognized by the federal government.

As governor of Virginia, I testified before Congress in support of the tribes and was deeply disappointed when they were not granted federal recognition before my term ended. When I came to the Senate, I was proud to join the efforts of my colleagues who have worked tirelessly on this issue.

In 2013, Senator Warner and I introduced the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, legislation that would grant federal recognition to six Virginia tribes: the Nansemond, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Monacan.

Congressmen Jim Moran, Rob Wittman, Gerry Connolly and Bobby Scott introduced companion legislation in the House, and we joined members of the tribes on the Capitol steps to call on our colleagues to support the bill.

I testified in front of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee last October, and the committee passed the legislation this April. Unfortunately, we have yet to see a vote on the Senate floor, and some members of Congress outside Virginia have objected to moving the legislation forward, because they believe that only the Bureau of Indian Affairs should have authority to recognize tribes, even though the vast majority — more than 90 percent — of tribes that have been granted federal recognition obtained it through Congress.

As I continue to push for a vote, I have also recommended changes to the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ recognition process that would increase flexibility for tribes with unique and challenging circumstances. The BIA has announced proposals that will increase transparency and efficiency, and I welcome those reforms.

In Virginia, there’s a beautiful tradition on the day before Thanksgiving, dating back to 1677. Members of Virginia Indian tribes come to Richmond to present a tribute to the governor in recognition of the bond between the commonwealth and the tribes.

We owe it to them to honor this friendship and their renowned role in United States history. The federal government’s failure to recognize the Virginia tribes is a grave injustice, but one that can still be corrected.

Tim Kaine represents Virginia in the United States Senate. Versions of this column originally appeared in The Daily Press and the News & Advance.