KING WILLIAM – A new chapter in the centuries-long history of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe has begun.
Tribal officials learned Friday that the Pamunkey will soon join the 566 other tribal nations across the country that are recognized by the federal government, a feat that seemed out of reach for Virginia’s Indians for years.
“We have been working towards this point for decades and are very pleased to have received a positive preliminary determination. We look forward to a continuing government-to-government relationship with the United States,” the Pamunkey Chief and Tribal Council said in a joint statement Friday.
“It is very good news,” Chief Kevin Brown added. “It now sets in place a 180-day waiting period for public comment.”
The tribe has been under active consideration by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) since August of 2012.
Brown received the tribe’s preliminary determination by phone Jan. 17 affirming that the petition submitted October 14, 2010, had been approved.
The tribe’s approval will now go under the six-month public comment period before the final determination is officially recorded in the Federal Register.
Federal status opens the door to benefits and services such as housing, health, and education opportunities. It also gives new hope to several of Virginia’s Indian tribes that have also been seeking federal recognition for years.
“There is a historical justice to it. We just feel we should be treated as an Indian tribe by the federal government and we’re not right now,” Brown said. “We predate the federal government so there’s just no excuse for them not to recognize us as a tribe like England recognizes us a tribe.”
Pamunkey’s journey to acknowledgement
The Pamunkey Indian Tribe initially began the process to earn federal recognition around 1982, Brown said.
At that time, the tribe was working on a petition to file at the BIA with the assistance of the Native American Rights Fund, but Brown said the fund ran out of money and interest waned.
“We went years where we weren’t doing anything,” Brown said.
Then in the 1990s the tribe began working once again with the Native American Rights Fund, which is a non-profit that raises funds through donations, as well as a legal firm in Colorado, Tilden McCoy LLP. Brown said they also received a grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA).
The tribe was able to file its letter of intent to petition the BIA in 2009.
“We had really good researchers from the University of Florida,” Brown said.
Researchers were able to draft a petition that documented the Pamunkey Indian Tribe’s history and genealogy dating back to 1787.
“If you’ve lived on a reservation for more than 100 years, you are moved to the front of the line of petitioners,” Brown said.
After responding to the BIA’s request for additional information in 2011, the tribe still had to wait until January of 2012 for its petition to be marked for consideration and then eight more months for active consideration.
“The BIA was very understanding and worked with us throughout the entire process,” Brown said.
“There wasn’t much we could do about the extensions,” Brown said. “We waited over 20 years so what was a few more months?”
Benefits of federal recognition
Once a final determination is made, which could take over a year, the Pamunkey Indian Tribes 208 members will be able to apply for a variety of services
“The importance of federal recognition is that we will be able to engage the federal government with a government to government relationship and we will be able to get services from different federal agencies that will come directly to the tribe. We won’t have to go through the state,” Brown said.
“[For example], we were informed that if a storm came through Virginia and hit the reservation pretty hard but it didn’t hit the other surrounding counties very hard, we wouldn’t have to wait for the Governor to declare a state of emergency. As the chief, I could declare a state of emergency and we could receive funds from FEMA directly and wouldn’t have to go through the state,” Brown explained.
In addition, currently, on the reservation, which is located along the shores of the Pamunkey River, it is difficult for residents to build a house. Tribal members do not own their land. The land is held in a state trust.
HUD has a program for those who reside on a reservation for mortgages and loans. When the tribe’s land is moved into a federal trust following recognition, tribal members will be able to receive federal housing funds.
Those funds could help tribal members like Jeff Brown.
Brown’s home on the reservation burnt down over a year ago and without insurance he has not been able to rebuild.
“I lost everything. Fortunately I had built a workshop and I have been able to live there,” he said.
With the help of donations, Jeff Brown was able to make the workshop more livable but he still does not have indoor plumbing.
“It’s pretty hard,” he said. “That will be one of the first programs I will be looking into to reconstruct.”
Tribal members will also be able to apply for services through the BIA’s Indian Health Services program.
Unfortunately, Brown said, currently the closest clinic under the Indian Health Service is in Rockville, South Carolina.
However, if more tribes in Virginia were to become federally recognized, Brown is hopeful a clinic could be opened in the Commonwealth or even on the Pamunkey reservation.
Tribal members will also be able to apply for programs to get extra help for students going to college through the Indian Educational Opportunity Service.
“Those are just a few. There are a whole lot we don’t know but we will be able to attend conferences and workshops to learn more about these programs,” Brown said. “ It’s going to be a huge learning curve right from the start.”
The Pamunkey Indian Tribe is one of three Native American tribes located in King William County.
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.
“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
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).
The AACS fears that federally acknowledged tribes will result in competition for stores already located near reservations if a tribe decided to open a similar business on tribal lands.
Brown said because the tribe would not have to charge taxes there is the potential for a store on a reservation to under prices.
Gambling, gaming, or the prospect of casinos has also been a topic explored for when discussing potential federal recognition.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed in 1988. It established the National Indian Gaming Commission as a federal agency designed to protect gaming as a form of revenue for tribes, as well as promote economic development for the tribes and ensure that the tribes are the primary beneficiaries of gaming activities.
Brown said the Pamunkey Indian Tribe is not interested in gaming, but wants to make sure the tribe has the same rights and opportunities are any other federally recognized tribe.
“We began actively pursuing federal recognition in 1982 and there was no such thing as Indian casinos back then, so it couldn't have been our motivation,” Brown said.
In addition, Brown said in Virginia gaming operations are a lot harder to establish because even though it would be a right under the federal government, Virginia law is written as such that the state would have to agree upon it as well.
“It’s not the way it used to be,” Brown said. “The process is much harder than most think.”
Potential changes to Federal Acknowledgment Process
Last summer and into early fall, the BIA held a public comment period requesting input on potential changes to the Federal Acknowledgement Process.
“It was too late for us but they are trying to make it much easier,” said Brown, citing that the tribe chose to continue moving forward under the current system rather than wait until new regulations are in place.
“We wish they had done this 10 years ago,” he said. “We were too far into the process and we wanted to continue under the old regulations but hopefully, it will be easier for others in the future.”
Local tribal members and supporters submitted public comment last year to the BIA regarding the federal process.
The Upper Mattaponi Tribe council submitted proposed changes to the process, including establishing 1934 as the year from which a community must prove continued existence.
“There should be a stated presumption that if a Tribe existed in 1934, that Tribe descended from a historical Tribe at the time of contact with non-Indians, shifting the meaning of 'historic' to refer to distinct communities identified as such in 1934,” the council's letter stated.
If new regulations are approved, it could take up to two years before they go into effect.
There are currently 15 tribes or Indian nations, not all state-recognized, that have submitted letters of intent to the BIA.
Brown said he is hopeful that BIA’s decision to recognize the Pamunkey Tribe will lead to a domino affect and inspire other tribes to fill petitions soon.
“I think it means there is a chance for the other tribes to go through the same process with positive results,” Brown said. “We had some of the same problems with birth certificates that others have also had but the BIA was very considerate. We were allowed to submit back pages of family Bibles, as well as church records in its place. “
“I feel confident others would be successful, especially if there new regulations approved,” he added.
It may take some time, however, for other tribal leaders to decide what direction to take.
“We are happy for the Pamunkey. They are brothers of ours,” Custalow said. “However, this decision will not sway us in either direction. Our decision to file a petition will be based on want our people want and what they want to pursue.”
“I am very glad the Pamunkey tribe has received its preliminary approval. They have worked hard,” Adams agreed. “Anything positive like this gives us inspiration. It is good for the Powhatan Indians, good for King William County, and good for Virginia.”
After the 180-day public comment period, the Pamunkey Tribe has 60 days to respond to any submissions, after which, if warranted, the BIA can offer a consultation period to the tribe to address any arguments or adjustments due to responses submitted by the Tribe.
Then the BIA has 60 days to publish a final determination in the Federal Register, which will become effective 90 days from publication.
If the BIA reverses it’s preliminary finding, the petitioner has 90 days to request reconsideration. Brown said he does not believe a petition has been reversed before and is looking forward to more positive news in the future for the Pamunkey and Virginia’s Indians.
“It’s great news but we are all still in shock,” said Jeff Brown, who is a former Tribal Council member. “We do have another 180 days and more to wait but it’s exciting to have reached this point. It’s been a long-time coming.”
For more information about the BIA’s Office of Federal Acknowledgement visit http://www.bia.gov/WhoWeAre/AS-IA/OFA/index.htm
Hubbard can be reached by phone at 804-885-0042