The Department of Interior granted federal recognition to a Virginia Indian tribe for the first time on Thursday, more than 400 years after the first permanent English settlers encountered those Indians.
The federal designation allows the Pamunkey Indian tribe to receive certain federal benefits on medical care, housing and education, among other things. That tribe is only the second recognized since President Barack Obama took office, joining hundreds of others nationwide that have received that distinction.
“We’re looking at all economic opportunities, but we have nothing on the table right now,” said Bob Gray, the Pamunkey’s assistant chief.
Still, the tribe’s application was opposed by MGM Resorts, which is building a casino at the National Harbor outside the nation’s capital in Maryland.
The Pamunkey’s 1,200-acre reservation is about 25 miles east of Richmond on the Pamunkey River in rural King William County. A California-based group that has supported gambling limits in that state also opposed the application. In the United States, there are 493 Indian casinos and 1,262 commercial casinos. The recognition was also opposed by the Virginia Petroleum and Grocery Association, which expressed concerns about the tribe selling gas and cigarettes tax free to non-tribal members.
Nationwide, there are 566 federal recognized tribes and hundreds more want to join their ranks, including 14 others in Virginia. Since 1978, the government has recognized 17 tribes and rejected petitions from 34 other groups. Receiving recognition is a years-long process. The Interior Department said the Pamunkey provided one of the most well-documented petitions ever and easily satisfied its requirements. Gray said the tribe began its petition about 20 years ago.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed recognition because they said the tribe had a history of banning interracial marriages with blacks, which MGM also pointed to in its opposition. The tribe has said the ban was repealed in 2012 — two years after the tribe had submitted materials to the Interior Department seeking recognition. The Interior Department first said the Pamunkey met its requirements for recognition in January 2014 and a final decision was expected in March, but that was delayed after public opposition arose.
Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown told the CBC in a letter that the intermarriage ban was rooted in Virginia’s culture of racism, where “Racial intermixture was raised repeatedly as a rationale to divest us of our reservation and our Indian status.”
Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act made it illegal for decades for whites and non-whites to marry, and the registrar of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Plecker, launched an aggressive campaign at the time to prevent what he called the “mongrelization” of the white “master race” by what he called “pseudo-Indians.”
Plecker believed Indians wanted to ‘escape Negro status’ in order to attend white schools and marry whites. Plecker ordered that Indians be classified as “colored” on birth and marriage certificates and threatened doctors and midwives with jail for noncompliance.
In documents released Thursday, the Interior Department wrote that the Indian Civil Rights Act only applies to federally recognized tribes, and thus the intermarriage ban wasn’t applicable to the Pamunkey at the time of its application. It also notes that the department examines applications in light of historical context.
Gray said the tribe never doubted it would be recognized, despite the opposition.
“We knew the rules and what the decision making was based on by the federal guidelines, and we knew that those issues were distractions,” he said.
The Pamunkey is already recognized by Virginia’s government, and each Thanksgiving in an oft-photographed ceremony the tribe’s chief visits the governor of Virginia in a tribute ceremony. The ceremony recalls a treaty signed in 1677 between the colony’s governor and several Indian leaders, including the Pamunkey.
The tribe was considered the most powerful in the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom, which greeted the English settlers at Jamestown, and claims Pocahontas among its lineage.
U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Virginia, said in a statement that recognition, beyond its federal benefits, honors the tribe’s identity.
“The Pamunkey are the first Virginia Indian tribe to receive federal recognition, over 400 years after making contact with the first European settlers. Despite the integral role the tribes played in American history and the unique cultures they have continued to maintain for thousands of years, they have faced barriers to recognition due to extraordinary circumstances out of their control,” Kaine said. “Today’s announcement is an important step toward righting this historical wrong.”
He said he hoped the development would spur “long-overdue recognition” for six other Virginia tribes.