Friday, July 03, 2015

Congratulations To The Pamunkey Tribe On Becoming Federally Recognized

Early this morning I read a post my friend Bill Sembello shared on Facebook announcing that the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, one of eight state recognized tribes in the Commonwealth of Virginia, recently received federal recognition as an American Indian Tribe. This is an incredibly significant leap forward for the Pamunkey and potentially for other tribes who are not federally recognized.

For most people who read this blog, you might know a little bit about my heritage as a Shawnee, but that doesn't mean you know a ton about Native American law, rights, or recognition in this country. You see, there tons of different agencies that seek to define who is a member of a tribe, who is an American Indian, etc. For instance, there are a number of tribes that are recognized by a state government or agency, and each tribe has distinct criteria for recognizing members. There's some great literature on this for any who are interested, here is a good place to start--the principal chief of my tribe recommended I read that book while I was in college. Being recognized by the federal government allows a tribe to be considered a sovereign nation within a nation, or as Justice Marshall wrote in his Supreme Court Opinion on Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, "domestic dependent states." Regardless of the rights and opportunities conferred upon a tribe when it is federally recognized, there's something more at hand, particularly for the Pamunkey.

The Pamunkey were the first natives that met the English at Jamestown in 1607. Heard of Pocahontas? Her real name was Matoaka, and she is probably the most famous Pamunkey Indian in Western history, and maybe one of the most famous American Indians in the last 400 years. In 1677, the Pamunkey Reservation was formed formally by the Governor of Virginia under the Authority of the King of England. The treaty is actually still honored to this day by members of the tribe bringing a deer to the Virginia Governor's mansion on Thanksgiving Day.

The British recognized the Pamunkey as a tribe. Virginia recognized the Pamunkey as a tribe. But, the United States did not formally recognize the Pamunkey as a tribe until July 2, 2015. The Pamunkey spent decades and more than 2 million dollars fighting for this recognition. They even had to fight against a resort who viewed their sovereignty (and potential for opening a casino) as a financial threat according to a recent article.

According to NPR, Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown called this a vindication, and remarked that different groups had used "Paper genocide to attempt to erase us from the historic record." Most famously in the Commonwealth, this happened in the early 1900s through a man named Walter Plecker who drafted the Racial Integrity Law of 1924 in Virginia. It required that all births be registered as white or colored and aside from being an incredibly racist law in its most basic form, it also sought to eliminate Virginia Indians from the historical record.

Though many won't have the same level of interest in this decision, I'm personally incredibly excited for the Pamunkey, and for what this decision could potentially mean for the other tribes in Virginia currently seeking to be recognized by the federal government. And I'm also excited for what the recognition of the Pamunkey means for eastern Native people. For many, Indian people either no longer exist, or only exist "out West." In fact, this phenomenon led members of many Virginia tribes to share their stories in this book.

I used to make an annual trip with my Chief to an annual conference hosted by the Virginia Governor's Council On Indians. The people I met there have all been really great people--hard-working, community-oriented, faith-filled, and welcoming, and on the rare occasion I find myself traveling through the Commonwealth, I love getting together and catching up with all the good that is happening in their communities.

Regardless of what it means for other tribal communities, including my own, I am incredibly excited for the 208 members of the Pamunkey tribe. For one of the first tribes to meet European explorers and settlers to have survived and maintained their traditional way of life is a huge feat in and of itself, and honestly, this recognition is long overdue.

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