Former Gov. Ralph Northam (D) issued an executive order last fall, shortly before leaving office, that required state agencies to notify the state’s seven federally recognized tribes when consideration of projects affecting their traditional lands. Defenders of native tribes had hoped to codify the order to ensure the practice would continue.
Governor Glenn Youngkin (R), who took office on January 15, did not rescind Northam’s order but did not say whether he intended to follow it. A spokeswoman for Youngkin did not respond to a request for comment.
Federal law requires that sovereign Indian tribes have the ability to comment on development permits that affect federal tribal areas. The law that failed Wednesday was an effort to require the same practice for state government.
“We are simply asking for … the respect that all other federally recognized tribes across the continent get. Give us a seat at the table when the negotiations begin,” Upper Mattaponi Chief Frank Adams told members of an agriculture, Chesapeake and natural resources subcommittee on Wednesday.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (D-Richmond), would not give tribes a veto over most development projects, but would require the state to provide them with an opportunity to comment in the part of any authorization process. The only exception would be projects that involve moving burials, in which case the tribes would need to approve the appropriate methods for moving human remains.
The bill failed in subcommittee on a 5-5 vote, with one Republican joining four Democrats in supporting it. A similar bill in the House, sponsored by Del. Paul E. Krizek (D-Fairfax), failed before the same subcommittee in early February. Of the. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), the chairman of the committee, then questioned the impact of the bill.
“It has the potential, in my view, to have a very broad effect … with a variety of clearance processes with state agencies,” Ware said during the Feb. 7 hearing.
The tribes have been pushing for a greater role in reviewing development projects around the state that impact their ancestral sites and, in many cases, the archaeological remains of their cultures. Because state law does not guarantee them a review, tribes most often only find out about the impacts of proposed development after projects have advanced through the permitting process.
The proposed law “simply means giving tribes a seat at the table to raise concerns or information. The agencies still have full authority to move forward despite tribal objections,” Marion Werkheiser, an attorney representing six of the seven tribes, told the House committee last month.
While Werkheiser said she was disappointed with Wednesday’s outcome, she noted that two other bills backed by Virginia’s native tribes were moving through the General Assembly. One – HB 1136 – would set up a commission to update the state code to reflect federal recognition of the tribes of Virginia. This bill has been approved by the House and should be presented to the Senate by the end of the week.
Another — SB 31 — would make tribes eligible for grants from the Virginia Land Conservation Fund.