Pamunkey Indian Tribe in King William County earns preliminary federal recognition

The Mattaponi Indian Tribe Reservation is located along the shores of the Mattaponi River almost directly on the opposite side of the county from the Pamunkey Reservation.

Additionally, the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe (which is a separate tribe from the Mattaponi) holds its tribal grounds further north in the county off of Route 30 near Central Garage.

The Upper Mattaponi, which includes about 600 members, is listed as one of the first Virginia tribes to file a letter of intent (second to the Rappaahannock Tribe by only 10 days) to petition the BIA. The letter was filed on Nov. 26, 1979.

However, about 20 years ago, Upper Mattaponi tribal leaders decided to take another route, pursuing federal recognition through the U.S. Congress with five other Virginia Indian tribes, including the Chickahominy Tribe, Eastern Chickahominy Tribe, Rappahannock Tribe, Monacan Tribe, and Nansemond Tribe.

What was eventually dubbed the Thomasina E. Jordan Federal Recognition Act was introduced to Congress on several occasions. The bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2007 days before the Commonwealth celebrated the 400th anniversary at Jamestown, but it never made it to a vote on the Senate floor.

“We have actually had the bill pass twice through the House, once in 2007 and again in 2009,” Upper Mattaponi Chief Ken Adams said.

The bill was reintroduced to the Senate during the current 113th Congressional session by Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner.

“Virginia’s unique history and its harsh policies of the past have created a barrier for many of Virginia’s Indian Tribes to meet administrative criteria to get federal recognition,” Senator Tim Kaine said Friday.  “I am pleased that the Pamunkey Tribe, due to their continuous possession of reservation land, were able to overcome this barrier. I am fully committed to seeing the six Virginia Tribes included in my bill, ‘The Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2013’ are granted the federal recognition they deserve.”

Adams said it is currently in the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and if approved there, it will eventually make its way to the Senate floor and onto the House of Representatives.

“Progress is very slow in the U.S. government on many issues. We’re not the only ones,” Adams said. “We remain positive, hoping that it moves on through.”

According to tribal leaders, the decision to pursue an act of Congress was made because the tribes found the BIA’s requirement of tracing their ancestry back to the 19th century to be a difficult task.

Most believe it was made harder by Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which declared interracial marriages illegal and classified all Virginians as white or black.

Known as “paper genocide” some say this state-imposed policy left gaps in the Virginia tribes’ historical record.

The tribes had several backers over the years, including Rep. James Moran, who introduced the bill in previous sessions, and former Senator Jim Webb, as well as the Virginia Council of Churches, former governors, the General Assembly, and local governments like King William County.

Some legislators feared gambling as an option once Virginia tribes received federal recognition, but that option, as well as other sovereign rights, was written out of the bill.

“There weren’t any major rights excluded,” Adams explained. “We did write out the right to gaming even if Virginia laws changed and the point of that was because there were opponents at the federal level and legislators that wanted to ensure that Virginia’s Indians could not do any gaming.”

Adams said it is hard to say if the decision to recognize the Pamunkey Indians will help propel the legislation or other petitions before the BIA.

“Our histories are all intertwined to a great degree so I’d like to think that it would,” he said. “The major difference between us and the Pamunkey Tribe is that they’ve lived on a reservation all this time. We have very similar histories, a lot of common ancestors, and intermarriages over the years. That has all kept us strongly connected.”

“It’s still hard to say whether or not this will help us along,” he added. “I certainly feel the Pamukey Tribe deserves this.”

Mattaponi Indian Tribe