Local Commentary

Jim Moran

This has been a good week for Virginia’s Native American tribes. Not only have they been active and featured participants in the 400th Jamestown Anniversary, but their long awaited quest for federal recognition reached a major milestone.

This has been a good week for Virginia’s Native American tribes. Not only have they been active and featured participants in the 400th Jamestown Anniversary, but their long awaited quest for federal recognition reached a major milestone.

For the first time since the legislation was introduced in 1999, recognition of the tribes who greeted the first settlers at Jamestown four centuries ago has passed the U.S. House of Representatives. This historic vote brings the tribes closer than ever before to gaining their rightful place of honor.

Since English settlers landed on what is now Virginia soil at Jamestown in 1607, Virginia’s Native American tribes have played an integral role in the history of Virginia, including helping settlers survive those first harsh winters. Unfortunately, through much of the last 400 years, Virginia’s Native Americans have been brutally and systematically mistreated.

This racial hostility culminated with the enactment and brutal enforcement of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The act empowered zealots, like Walter Plecker, a state official, to destroy records and reclassify in Orwellian fashion all non-whites as “colored.” To call oneself a “Native American” in Virginia was to risk a jail sentence of up to one year. Married couples were denied marriage certificates or even unable to obtain the release of their newborn child from a hospital until they changed their ethnicity on the state record to read “colored,” not “Native American.”  For much of the 20th Century admission to public school education was denied. Even after federally enforced integration, states and localities refused to provide bus service to the public high schools.

Known as a “paper genocide” this state imposed policy has left gaps in the Virginia tribes’ historical record. These gaps make it nearly impossible for the tribes to pursue federal recognition through the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs acknowledgement process. Their last resort is pursuing an act of Congress, which they have been doing for the past seven years.

But with House passage of the Virginia tribes’ recognition bill (H.R. 1294), we can close a sad chapter in our nation’s history and the tribes can begin a new one.  Virginia’s six tribes, the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan, and Nansemond now await action in the Senate so that the bill can be sent to the President for signature.

With their support and the stroke of a pen, the Virginia tribes can finally join the 562 other recognized tribes in the U.S., gaining their rightful place of honor.