I spent the last couple of weeks in Washington, D.C., and they turned out to be fairly momentous. There were landmark Supreme Court decisions on the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage, but there was also a much quieter announcement more directly related to what I study and more specifically related to where I live. The Bureau of Indian Affairs officially approved the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia’s application for federal recognition, decades after the tribe initiated the process to become Virginia’s first federally recognized Indian tribe. (It’s worth noting that the Duwamish, of Washington state, were not approved, and were notified on the same day.)
I was actually at the Library of Congress for a NEH seminar on Native American history, and it involved a ton of discussion about reservations, tribal government and rights, political sovereignty, cultural identities, and self-determination. In other words, I was hanging out with a bunch of people who saw the headline in the Washington Post and immediately thought it was remarkable and exciting. We were already talking about the challenges of recognition, and the lack of visibility of Native people and communities, so this gave us lots to discuss.
One of the challenges that had faced the Pamunkey was their lack of a treaty with the federal government, the basis for many tribes’ federal recognition and treaty rights. Instead, the Pamunkey maintain a treaty-based relationship with the governor of Virginia, based on a colonial-era treaty; they still commemorate it annually, including giving a gift to the governor (formerly a bundle of arrows, now a pair of deer). But that state-level treaty hadn’t previously proved enough to obtain recognition, despite a persistent cultural identity and a reservation (land base) almost unique among Virginia’s tribes. That isn’t quite to say that no one acknowledges their existence, but rather that the BIA adheres to a strict set of requirements legislated by Congress, and it took the Pamunkey years of work and research to persuade the BIA that, in the official notice’s language, “the Pamunkey Indian Tribe exists as an Indian tribe within the meaning of Federal law.”
The Pamunkey were already one of eleven tribes recognized by the state, as are the six tribes currently seeking federal recognition through an act of Congress. These tribes haven’t met with success in their petitions to the BIA, again largely because of the strict requirements for federal recognition, but have pooled resources to make the case that they have and continue to exist as independent communities deserving of federal status. Several others have commented that they aren’t actively seeking federal status because state recognition provides access to resources and programs they’re interested in, and they don’t necessarily see a need to pursue federal status at the moment. The Pamunkey also maintained that position for a time–in fact, a tribal spokesman explicitly said as much in preparing the tribe’s exhibit at D.C.’s National Museum of the American Indian.
There were objections to according the Pamunkey federal status, and they weren’t all based on the strict requirements for BIA recognition. One major group of opponents cited their concern that federal recognition would allow the Pamunkey to open a casino on their reservation, since federally recognized tribes are exempt from some state regulations (Virginia typically does not allow gaming, though there is currently a casino under construction–shockingly, the company operating that casino has opposed Pamunkey recognition). A second group of opponents cited tribal regulations that prohibited marriage between Pamunkeys and individuals of African descent, arguing that a racist past should disqualify the tribe (though nobody has argued that my state, home of Loving v. Virginia, should be denied statehood based on that history). I don’t know a ton about Pamunkey history, but I’d suspect that stance was partly a response to the state’s 1924 Racial Integrity ACt, which banned interracial marriage and dictated that state records record births as “White” or “Colored,” or if the attitude existed earlier, was an effort to distance themselves from a black population enslaved in the colonial and 19th-century South. Given the choice between identifying as white at a time when there were few protections afforded to Indian tribes, and with legal segregation and socially acceptable racism in full force, American Indians undoubtedly chose the more palatable option.
That created problems later when tribes like the Pamunkey began seeking federal recognition, since their tribal identities and affiliations had been legislated out of existence for decades, if not generations. In other words, proving a continuous existence was difficult when there were long gaps due to the fact that no one was officially identified as “American Indian,” much less Pamunkey. Opponents of recognition could argue that tribal members were not “real” Indians, but merely claiming that identity to access “special privileges” like treaty rights and federal funds.
Nonetheless, in the few years I’ve spent in Virginia, it’s become abundantly clear that the state’s Native communities maintain a vibrant cultural tradition–including oral histories, language reconstruction programs and classes, traditional naming conventions and material culture (Patawomeck eel baskets, for instance)–and constitute well-defined, tight-knit communities. The federal government has acknowledged this in the case of the Pamunkey, and we’ll see if that matters for other Virginia tribes.
But for now, it seems it’s time to update the Pamunkey exhibition at the NMAI.