“400 years is quite a long time”: the Indian tribes of Virginia’s “first contact” demand federal recognition

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Seth Adkins dances at the Chickahominy Tribal Center near Providence Forge, Va., In 2015. The tribe regularly holds a reunion to teach about the history and culture of Native Americans in Virginia. (Timothy C. Wright / For the Washington Post)

In the summer of 1619, two dozen white men gathered at a church in Jamestown, Virginia, to set tobacco prices and enact gambling and drunkenness bans. It was the first legislative assembly in America, although the settlers may not have survived long enough to hold it without the help of the Native Americans.

Four centuries later, the descendants of these Indians ask lawmakers to return the favor by finally granting them federal recognition.

“The nation owes a debt of gratitude to the native people, who provided the environment that helped support the settlers,” said Stephen Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy, one of six tribes in Virginia seeking recognition.

Last week, the United States House voted in favor of the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017, which would officially recognize the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond tribes.

But the legislation needs the approval of the Senate, which has twice blocked recognition.

“We are getting closer and closer,” said Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Who along with Senator Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) Sponsored the bill in the Senate. Kaine said he plans to spend the next month mobilizing support to right what he called an “injustice.”

The legislation would not compensate for centuries of suffering, admit its supporters. But it would allow the tribes to join the 567 recognized tribes of American and Alaskan Indians in receiving federal money for housing, education and health care.

It would also allow tribes to claim artefacts, religious items and ancestor remains kept in museums.

“It’s a matter of pride,” said Adkins, whose tribe has around 850 members. “We want to be recognized as the sovereign people that we are. “

One thing the law would not allow is gambling.

The six tribes were part of the Powhatan Nation, a confederacy of East Virginia tribes that met the first permanent English settlers in America at Jamestown in 1607.

The tribes are perhaps best known for Pocahontas, the daughter of Chief Powhatan who, according to legend, saved the life of Captain John Smith.

But their contributions to the country’s history extend far beyond Pocahontas, Adkins said. He pointed out that a 1614 peace treaty between the Chickahominy and the settlers was the first of its kind in America.

“We helped support these people when they couldn’t face the harsh conditions of winters, hot summers and didn’t understand the growing seasons, hunting and fishing – much to our peril, as our land was lost. , our language was trashed, and our ranks were decimated, ”he said. “We had the artillery, even though it was primitive – bows and arrows and clubs – to eradicate these people if it had been the will of the Indian rulers. “


In 2015, members of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes, including Kolton Wallace, 1, and Bradley Dixon, 4, presented a deer to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe. The Richmond ceremony has been going on for over 300 years. (Timothy C. Wright / For the Washington Post)

In 1677, the tribes signed a peace treaty with the English government. In return for allegiance to the crown, they obtained rights to land and promised protection. (To this day, some tribes honor the deal by showing up on the steps of the Virginia State Capitol each fall to present deer, doves, and turkeys to the governor.)

After the American Revolution, however, the United States did not recognize the treaty. And unlike other tribes, who fought the settlers and eventually got treaties, the tribes of Virginia were never recognized.

“Ironically, the tribes of Virginia became peaceful too soon,” Kaine said. “They should not be penalized for making peace with the European settlers in the United States earlier than the rest.”

History continued to conspire against the tribes. During the civil war, troops burned down courthouses containing tribal archives.

The biggest obstacle to tribal recognition was a racist official named Walter A. Plecker.

Plecker’s name is practically a four-letter word for Native Americans in Virginia. The avowed white bespectacled physician, eugenicist, and supremacist headed the state Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 until his retirement in 1946.

Plecker pushed the Virginia legislature to pass the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which criminalized interracial marriage and required that every birth in the state be registered by race, with the only options being “White” and “Color”.

The law, which literally wiped Indians from state records, is sometimes called “genocide on paper.” Plecker boasted of being “the most perfect expression of the white ideal and the most important eugenic effort that has been made in 4000 years”.

Virginia recognized the tribes in the early 1980s. Around the same time, some tribes began to seek federal recognition from the Office of Indian Affairs. But this process required records that many tribes did not have.


Walter A. Plecker, the first registrar of the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics, said there were no real Indians left because of black marriages. (Richmond Times-Dispatch / Staff photo)

A birth registration form and color used by Walter Plecker, who headed the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946. (Library of Virginia)

“A lot of our records have been destroyed,” Adkins said, “and the ones that haven’t been edited by Walter Plecker.”

In the late 1990s, Adkins and five other chiefs began to try another path: asking Congress to pass a law recognizing the tribes.

For more than a decade, the mainstay of the effort was Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), Who persuaded the six tribes to give up their gambling rights as a condition of recognition.

In 2007, the first time the bill was passed by the House, it said it was named after a Native American activist who had united the tribes in order to be recognized.

“Thomasina E. Jordan, who had Indian blood in her, came to see me one day,” Moran told the Washington Post ten years ago. “She had to be transported because she was so sick. She held my hand and made me promise to do it. And she died the next morning. “

Legislation languished in the Senate, however, where a single legislator can delay a bill. The same thing happened in 2009.

Kaine hopes his bill will meet a different fate.

“We have the impression that there has been a slight movement forward,” he said, noting that his bill was passed by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on the same day as his bill. brother was adopted in the House.

Some of those most opposed to recognition of the Six Tribes are no longer in the Senate, Kaine added.

Another positive sign came two years ago when another Powhatan tribe, the Pamunkey, became the first in Virginia to be federally recognized after a lengthy administrative process.

Adkins said he had been lobbying Congress for almost 20 years. Along the way, several leaders had died while waiting to be recognized.

“The time has come,” he said. “Four hundred years is quite a long time.”

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