Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Virginia Tribes Finally Achieve Federal Recognition

By Tim Kaine

There are many tough days in the Senate — days where progress seems so far away. I think we all need reminders in these challenging times that we still have the power to do great good. I recently experienced one such reminder, and I’d like to tell you about it.

In January, we obtained a major victory for Virginia as Congress finally passed — after decades of effort — a bipartisan bill giving federal recognition to six Virginia Indian tribes. These tribes – the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Nansemond, Monacan and Rappahannock – were among the original tribes populating Virginia when English settlers arrived at Jamestown in 1607. They entered into peace treaties with the English in the 1670s and have maintained tribal identity and traditions since that time.

But they were long treated with contempt and discrimination by Virginia – their records were destroyed, their students were denied access to in-state higher education opportunities, their artifacts and even the bones of their ancestors were taken by museums. And even as more than 500 tribes across the country have been recognized by the federal government, these living and thriving tribes in Virginia had not.

Through it all, our tribes have carried themselves as sovereign people peacefully living within a nation they love. Their commitment to military service has been especially notable. And each year, the tribes journey to Richmond the day before Thanksgiving to celebrate their connection to Virginia by presenting a tribute to the Governor. My wife Anne and I used to relish that celebration during our days in the Governor’s Mansion!

When I was governor, I also felt the shame of the failure of our country to recognize these tribes. I remember seeing the tribes recognized and celebrated in England as a sovereign people by reason of their peace treaties, all while America – their land and home – refused to acknowledge them. It was painful for me — and I can’t imagine the pain the tribes must have felt.

Beginning in the 1980s, there has been a slow turning to justice for our tribes. First, the Commonwealth of Virginia officially recognized the tribes. And then our elected officials – both Democrats and Republicans – joined together with tribal leaders to push for federal recognition. The first bill in Congress was introduced by Congressman Jim Moran in 2000, and in 2002, Senators George Allen and John Warner introduced the first Senate version. Since then, the process has been painfully slow. One Virginia tribe, the Pamunkey, received recognition through an administrative process in 2016. But the six other tribes lacked records to meet the administrative standard. Courthouse fires during the civil war and active destruction of their records by state officials blocked their path. They had to depend upon Congress.

Over the years, the recognition bill passed the House twice without Senate action. More recently, the Senate would act favorably in committee, but the recognition bill would die on the Senate floor. But finally, on Jan. 11, the stars aligned. Senator Mark Warner and I were able to clear the last Senate objection – essentially getting to unanimity within the Senate to give these tribes their long-overdue federal recognition. With tribal leadership in attendance, we called up Congressman Rob Wittman’s previously passed House bill, passed it by voice vote, and sent the matter on to President Trump for signature. It was one of the most emotional moments of my political career.

In the Senate Hall after the vote, I told the Chiefs that I was so proud of them for never giving up. I have learned so much from them along the way.
When a Virginia Senate seat unexpectedly opened in 2011 after Jim Webb, himself a great champion of the tribes, decided not to run for re-election, I was not sure whether I should run. But one question I asked myself was whether, after 16 years of public life, there was any unfinished business that I still wanted to complete. And the issue of our tribes still being unrecognized came to mind as one of just a handful of things that I still hoped to accomplish.

Even in a tough time, moments of grace occur and important work gets done. That prospect — the next good thing I can do — keeps me going every day. I wake up seeking opportunities to help Virginians in my work in the Senate. All our victories won’t be as significant as giving these native Americans — the Virginia tribes — the recognition they deserved, but I still believe people of good faith, with common purpose, can work together to improve the lives of our people.

In 2018, I hope we can find more moments of joy and bring more hope and healing to the people of this great country.


Tim Kaine is senator in the U.S. Senate from Virginia.