Pamunkey Indian Tribe in King William County earns preliminary federal recognition

The Pamunkey and Mattaponi Indians are the only two tribes in Virginia that still call a reservation home.

The two neighboring tribes both cling to similar traditions that revolve around the rivers that have long been a part of their lineage. They are both still recognized by the state of Virginia and the Crown of England, and both still acknowledge a treaty signed centuries ago that established an annual tax payment of wild game to the Governor of Virginia. The tax payment ceremony is still performed each November on the steps of Virginia’s Capitol in Richmond.

However, the Mattaponi, which includes about 400 tribal members, is one of Virginia’s 11 state-recognized tribes that has not sought federal recognition in any manner.

The Mattaponi Tribe did fill a letter of intent with the BIA on April 4, 1995, and according to Chief Mark Custalow, the tribe is currently looking into drafting a petition.

“We want to do it the same way the Pamukey Tribe has done,” Custalow said. “We do not want to give up any of our sovereignty.”

Like the Pamunkey and other tribes, the Mattaponi is currently governed by its own Chief and Council and follows its own laws. Custalow referred to the legislative attempt and said that has resulted in compromises that give up some rights by the tribal governments.

Like Brown, Custalow’s main concerns were about the tribe’s land, hunting and fishing rights. Both agreed that because other tribes do not still reside on a reservation, those rights are not as big of a concern.

According to Custalow, the tribe meets BIA’s current criteria for federal acknowledgement, which includes:

• Being identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.

• A predominant portion of the petitioning group comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present.

• Maintaining political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from historical times until the present.

• The group’s present governing document includes its membership criteria. In the absence of a written document, the petitioner must provide a statement describing in full its membership criteria and current governing procedures.

• Membership consists of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe or from historian Indian tribes, which combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity.

• Membership of the petitioning group is composed principally of persons who are not members of any acknowledged North American Indian tribe.

• Neither the petitioner nor its members are the subject of congressional legislation that has expressly terminated or forbidden the Federal relationship.

Custalow said members of the Mattaponi Indian tribe, like the Pamunkey, would be able to take advantage of the numerous federal programs including educational and housing opportunities.

“[Like the Pamunkey], here on the reservation you cannot get a regular loan or mortgage the same way you can anywhere else in the Commonwealth,” Custalow said. “Our goal is to better the livelihood of our people and some of those programs would help us achieve that.”

Opposition to federal recognition

While Virginia’s tribes have received overwhelming support for their struggle to achieve federal recognition, some tribes have faced opposition over the years.

Brown said surprisingly enough, the national organization that often expresses the most opposition to tribes is the Association of American Convenience Stores (AACS).