More than 400 years after Pocahontas, arguably the most famous Pamunkey Indian, saved the life of Englishman John Smith, the tribe once again made history Thursday by becoming the first Indian tribe in Virginia to be recognized by the federal government.
For the 200-member community, living on a 1,200-acre reservation in rural King William County about 25 miles east of Richmond, the recognition brings not only certain inherent rights of self-government but also a variety of federal benefits, services and protections.
“We’re ecstatic and very happy that it has finally come to this. We are looking forward to working with the U.S. government,” Robert Gray, the tribe’s acting chief, said in an interview.
Recognition opens the possibility for the tribe to seek to operate a casino through a separate approval process, but Gray said it has no plans to do so.
At present, there are 566 federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribes and villages. Virginia recognizes 11 Indian tribes in the state.
The Pamunkeys are the second tribe nationwide that met all criteria for federal recognition under the Obama administration, U.S. Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn said.
“Our professional historians, anthropologists and genealogists spent thousands of hours of staff time researching and applying our rigorous acknowledgment criteria to these petitions,” Washburn said in a statement. “This work reflects the most solemn responsibilities of the United States.”
On what he called a “historic day in Virginia,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe congratulated members of the Pamunkey tribe on their “tireless efforts to ensure that they receive the federal recognition that they deserve.”
The tribe’s path to recognition was filled with roadblocks.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed recognition, citing the tribe’s history of banning interracial marriages with blacks. The tribe has said the ban was repealed in 2012 — two years after materials were submitted to the Interior Department for its bid for recognition.
The Interior Department first said the Pamunkeys met requirements for recognition in January 2014 and a final decision was expected in March, but that was delayed after public opposition arose.
Others expressed concern that granting the tribe recognition could create what they call an unfair economic advantage.
“As of today, there is nothing to stop the Pamunkeys from reopening Colonial Downs as a casino, or acquiring convenience stores and selling gasoline or cigarettes without collecting the state tax. This unfortunate decision by one unelected bureaucrat will have widespread unfortunate ramifications for all Virginians,” said Michael J. O’Connor, president of Virginia Petroleum and Grocery Association.
But Gray, the acting chief, called these concerns unfounded.
“Take a look on a map and see where the reservation is currently located. It is hard to have any sort of business here,” he said.
The tribe has occupied a remote land base on the Pamunkey River since the Colonial era in the 1600s. Today, the area exists as a state reservation with few amenities.
“We don’t really have high-speed Internet, no cable, only satellite. Everyone loves the country life, and we love being as isolated as we are. We have no plans to put a casino on our reservation,” Gray said.
The Pamunkeys were part of the Powhatan paramount chiefdom that included more than 30 tribes, estimated to total 10,000 to 15,000 people at the time of British colonization.
The Pamunkey tribe was federally recognized because it has identified continuously as an American Indian body since 1900; existed as a distinct community; and maintained political influence over its members for centuries.
It also has provided the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs with documents describing its governance procedures and membership criteria as well as a list of its current members who descend from a centuries-old Indian tribe and who are not also members of another federally recognized tribe. In addition, it never has been subject to congressional legislation that expressly terminated or forbade the federal relationship.
U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., congratulated the tribe on “finally receiving this long-overdue” recognition.
“This historic milestone also reminds us of the work that remains before us to correct the injustices committed against Virginia Indian tribes,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., said federal recognition honors the Pamunkey tribe’s identity and makes its members eligible for benefits including housing, education and health care funding.
“Today’s announcement is an important step toward righting this historical wrong, and I’m optimistic that the federal government’s decision to recognize the Pamunkey will spur Congress to act on our bill that seeks long-overdue recognition for six other Virginia tribes,” Kaine said.
In the Senate, Warner and Kaine have introduced the bipartisan Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act that would grant recognition to six Virginia tribes: the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond.
These tribes have official recognition from the state but have not received federal recognition. The bill cleared its first procedural hurdle in March with passage out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.