Formal recognition is sweet

Published 10:10 pm Thursday, October 4, 2018

It was a moment nearly 400 years in the making.

For the first time, a representative of the United States government stood on a historic American Indian site and said to a gathering of Virginia Indian tribes, “We recognize you.”

Indian tribes in other states have had that privilege for many decades, indeed even centuries in some cases. But the tribes in Virginia, who were the first in North America to have contact with European settlers, made peace with the settlers too early — they made peace with the British crown, and that became their downfall when the new nation of the United States of America was formed.

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For hundreds of years, the Indian tribes of Virginia have faced discrimination in multiple ways. One of those ways was the horrifying Racial Integrity Act, which has been referred to as a “paper genocide” of those with Indian ancestry. This policy, which eliminated any trace of the Indian race on vital statistics documents like birth certificates, made it impossible for Virginia’s Indians to trace their lineage and provide the required documents to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition through the executive process.

So they began the process of trying to have a bill passed in Congress that would grant federal recognition to six tribes from the Eastern part of Virginia, including Suffolk’s own Nansemond tribe. The others were the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Monacan.

For the better part of 18 years, this bill was stalled by selfish legislators in Congress who thought tribes in their own states would be mad about it, who thought the Virginia Indians should have to go through the same process as others despite the hardships brought about by Virginia’s former racist state law, and some who thought the tribes would be permitted to open casinos, even though the law specifically prohibited gaming.

But the law finally passed earlier this year.

All these tribes have ever wanted was to be federally recognized. It does confer benefits upon the members but mostly means that they have finally been seen.

And that’s what happened Wednesday at Werowocomoco in Gloucester County, where Chief Powhatan once gathered tribal leaders and where the tribal leaders gathered once again. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke spoke to those gathered and gave an important speech that essentially told the tribes, “We recognize you.”

It was a long delayed moment, but — as many alluded to on Wednesday — the tribes are looking forward to the future while learning from the past. And that’s perhaps the most important thing.