Seeking Sovereignty: Indians Face Barriers, See Benefits in Quest

By Peter Hardin Times-Dispatch Washington Correspondent
Monday,March 6, 2000

The era of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act and Dr. Walter Ashby Plecker, the state official who used it to besiege Virginia’s Indians, is over.

But Virginia’s Indians still are working to overcome the legacy of Plecker’s efforts to wipe out their existence on paper. Virginia’s Native Americans claim a long history that includes the legendary Chief Powhatan and his daughter, Pocahontas, darling of Disney filmmakers and schoolchildren.

Yet they lack the formal government-to-government relationship with the United States that is held by more than 550 other tribes nationwide.

Rep. James P. Moran, D-8th, is drafting a bill for the federal government to extend this recognition as “sovereign nations” to eight Virginia tribes.

With federal recognition would come not only sovereignty but also eligibility for certain U.S. government programs for American Indians. The Clinton administration has proposed spending $9.4 billion on American Indians in its new budget.

In Congress, Moran’s expected bill may face political barriers. Staunch gambling foes, for example, fear it ultimately could lead to casinos in the Old Dominion.

For Virginia’s Indians, winning federal recognition would be a landmark along the road back from age-old displacement and the contemporary “statistical genocide” that one leader said was waged by Plecker, head of the Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 to 1946.

Plecker sought to deny the Indians’ existence on grounds that they had a mix of black blood and were trying to “pass” as white. He manipulated birth records, bullied citizens and joined with other influential leaders of that era to advocate the white race as superior.

Chief William P. Miles finds ludicrous the idea that his Pamunkey Tribe, located on one of the nation’s oldest reservations, needs to petition the federal government for recognition.

He said in disbelief, “Amongst all tribes that would aspire to seek federal recognition – you read about our tribe in the history books because of Pocahontas!”

Carl Custalow, assistant chief of the Mattaponi Tribe, believes that federal recognition is due.
“We were one of the first tribes to ever sign a treaty [with England], to come in contact with the Europeans,” Custalow said.

As he spoke, he was looking out the picture window of his new brick ranch home at a sweeping panorama of the Mattaponi River, which runs by the tribe’s three-centuries-old reservation in King William County.

Only 62 people live on the 150-acre reservation, but plans are under way for expansion: buying 2,000 adjoining wooded acres, building a cultural center and a new museum, even a traditional Mattaponi village.

Access to U.S. funds for tribal projects would help, along with federal money needed for Indian health care and education, Custalow said. A retired insurance claims superintendent, he’s 55 and the only reservation resident with a college degree.

Virginia’s Indians generally are more prosperous and face lower unemployment than their counterparts nationally. The 1990 Census found 31 percent of American Indians living in poverty, the highest of any ethnic group; in Virginia, the figure was closer to 13 percent.

Other leaders from Virginia’s eight state-recognized tribes echo similar reasons for seeking recognition: sovereignty, college tuition grants, health care, housing programs and respect.

“This whole nation is built on the backs of the Virginia Indian people. It’s time this great nation recognizes the ancestors and the descendants of the original people here,” said Diane Shields, an activist with the Monacan Indian Nation in Amherst County.

Yet an uphill fight awaits descendants of the native people who encountered the first European settlers in Virginia.

Casino gambling?

On Capitol Hill, controversy over Indian gaming looms as a roadblock.

Federally recognized tribes have raised billions of dollars for economic development by establishing gaming in the past decade. But foes contend that Indian gaming leads to family ruin and corruption.

Virginia tribal leaders, a number of them affiliated with the Baptist church, have said that they don’t want to set up gambling casinos. Some tribes already have rejected outside offers.

“The Mattaponi interest is to preserve our heritage and culture. We don’t want to be known as Casinoland,” the Mattaponi’s Custalow said about gaming sales pitches that his tribe turned away.

Chief Miles of the Pamunkey said: “As far as I’m concerned, we’ll never have it. It would change our way of life forever to have a casino on the reservation.”

Despite such assurances, Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginian and one of the foremost gambling foes in Congress, has vowed strong opposition to the expected bill.

“Publicly, privately, I would do everything I can to oppose it,” promised Wolf, who represents Northern Virginia’s 10th District.

Wolf, an influential senior Republican in the GOP-controlled House, is chairman of an Appropriations subcommittee and sponsored the bill that created a national commission to study gambling in America.

He said he feared that federal recognition could open the door to casino gambling and ultimately to corruption in a state known for clean government.

Although Virginia doesn’t permit casino gambling, Wolf voiced concern over unexpected results that might arise from granting federal recognition. Tribes have gone to court to establish gaming rights, he noted.

Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R- 6th, shares Wolf’s concerns and is leaning against supporting the bill. His district includes the Amherst County-based Monacans.

Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, another Republican, is watching the gambling issue too. “We certainly care about the quality of life of the people in the Indian communities in Virginia,” he said.

But he does not want to see “the ability to extend Indian gaming into the commonwealth, which places gambling outside of the purview of the regulation of Virginia. We already have enough.”

The economic lure of commercial gaming for Indians, facing high poverty and unemployment rates across the country, has proven strong.

In 1988 Congress set up a regulatory framework called the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. From $212 million in 1988, tribal gaming revenue grew more than thirtyfold to $7.4 billion last year.

About one-third of federally recognized tribes, or 185 out of 558, now offer gaming, according to the National Indian Gaming Association. The 20 largest Indian gaming centers take in more than half the total revenue.

Tribes sponsoring gambling are required to plow profits back into tribal services and economic development. Some tribes have found a valuable funding source this way, but “Indian gambling has not been a panacea for the many economic and social problems that Native Americans continue to face,” the National Gambling Impact Study Commission reported last year.

To conduct casino gambling, tribes are required to forge a compact with states. Lawsuits have arisen. In some states, tribes have opened casinos without a compact, according to the gambling study commission.

It is unclear whether Virginia tribal leaders will be able to deflect opposition over gaming.

Chief G. Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe said gambling isn’t an issue, and it’s unfortunate that some gambling foes want to make it one. When a type of gambling is barred by a state, the tribes may not engage in it, she said.

Rep. Moran, who is drafting the federal recognition bill, said tribal members have told him they believe gambling is evil. Moran doesn’t believe he can satisfy gambling foe Wolf, but he’s intent on introducing the bill anyway.

Moran said he promised to do so to Thomasina Jordan, a friend, Indian activist and then-chairwoman of the Virginia Council on Indians, the day before she died last year.

“It’s a compelling human rights case,” Moran said. “These people were shamefully discriminated against, had their rights usurped illegally, without authority. The only motivation was just pure racism. It was really criminal, and it needs to be rectified.”

These other hurdles could face Virginia’s tribes in Washington:

*Election-season politicking. When control of the White House and House of Representatives is at stake, politics can easily subvert many important bills.

*Indian country politics can be fierce. There is a threat that some federally recognized tribes may resist watching the federal “pie” for Indians sliced up further by recognizing new tribes.

*Clinton administration support isn’t guaranteed.

Virginia’s tribes have chosen to go to Congress rather than pursue an expensive and burdensome administrative route through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Even Kevin Gover, assistant Interior secretary for Indian affairs, conceded it could take as long as 25 years for a tribe to proceed through this route. Gover wants to improve the process but still prefers that tribes follow that procedure.

“We don’t usually favor” tribes seeking recognition from Congress, Gover said, “because it is a shortcut of a longer process of research and examination.”

He did not take a stand on the Virginia tribes’ bid.

“We would want to do some of our own research. If we see very little doubt these tribes are historic tribes, then we well might support the legislation,” he said.

The administrative route requires extensive documentation of tribal history. Virginia tribes could be handicapped by Plecker’s campaign to eradicate them on paper.

Given bureau backlogs and falsification or manipulation of records by Virginia officials, “it’s a certainty that none of the current members of the tribes in Virginia would live” long enough to see their petitions processed, said Karl A. Funke, a Maryland lawyer and Chippewa representing other tribes.

The bureau’s route has drawn scathing criticism from a number of lawmakers and Indian activists. In October 1998, the House of Representatives defeated a bill to give the recognition process to an independent commission.

Growing awareness

Virginia’s tribes aren’t federally recognized in part because of the way history unfolded.

Their ancestors had treaty relations with the British crown before the founding of the United States and were a peaceful people when the new nation was born, said Arlinda F. Locklear, a Lumbee Indian and Maryland lawyer.
“There was no occasion for the United States to deal” with the Virginia tribes, said Locklear, who has worked with the Pamunkey tribe.

It was in the 1980s, after the civil rights and national Indian movements, that eight Virginia tribes became more active politically and won recognition from the state Capitol. Several other tribes have been rebuffed in their intial steps toward state recognition.

By 1990 there were about 3,000 indigenous Virginia Indians out of 15,000 American Indians counted in the statewide census, according to scholars.

In some ways, Virginia continues to see increasing awareness of its Indian population and heritage.
In eastern Virginia, a regional official with the Army Corps of Engineers signaled last month that he intends to recommend denial of a permit for a new reservoir sought by Newport News in King William County because it would hurt the Mattaponi Indians and the environment.

The reservoir would take water from the Mattaponi River, and the Indians fear it could destroy their way of life and even their tribe. Their prolonged battle is not over, however.

At the College of William and Mary, an American Indian Resource Center is in the planning stages, including teacher-training institutes and an archive of Virginia Indian documents.

At Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, a Native American Studies program is being set up.

In Richmond, state archaeologist M. Catherine Slusser is proposing ways for Virginia tribes to bypass a tangle of federal procedures and get back for reburial the remains of their ancestors that were dug up years ago.

And the General Assembly, responding to Monacan concerns, adopted a bill in 1997 to allow Indians to change their birth records more easily and show their ancestry accurately. These and other steps reflect a departure from the days when Plecker’s white supremacist views were embraced by top state officials.

However, a number of Indian leaders are convinced the struggle goes on for respect and understanding of an Indian identity.

Planners of a “Celebration 2007” commemoration to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of a permanent settlement at Jamestown were urged by tribal leaders last fall to use a different label.

“It’s not a celebration for me,” said Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe. “It was an invasion of our country.”
Tribal representatives watching from a gallery at the state Capitol were offended last winter when the House of Delegates discussed its resolution in favor of federal recognition for Virginia’s tribes.

Some delegates began imitating Indian drumbeats by pounding on their desks.

“A colonial mentality still exists among some of the Virginia lawmakers,” said Richardson.

Later, the House passed the measure 95-5.

`Totally violated’

Nokomis Fortune Lemons of King and Queen County is an outspoken Indian who thinks her own brush with the law underscores the importance of federal recognition.

Federal agents arrived unannounced at her home in August with a search warrant, she said. They seized eagle feathers she had used in traditional and ceremonial dancing.

The feathers had been gifts to her and had a special religious symbolism, Lemons said. She’s chief of the Rappahannock Indian Tribe, a different group from Richardson’s.

“I was totally devastated,” said Lemons, who later was prosecuted in federal court. “If a person is raped, I think I’d feel the way that person felt. The gifts given to me were totally violated.”

Lemons pleaded guilty to illegal possession of eagle feathers. She was sentenced to probation and fined $500.
She got in trouble because only members of federally recognized tribes may apply to the government for a permit to possess feathers of eagles, which are an endangered species.

Her tribe not only isn’t federally recognized, it also does not have state recognition. It has been seeking that status.

An official with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Richmond said three or four similar cases are prosecuted in Virginia each year, when they’re brought to authorities’ attention.

Lemons, 39, still is simmering with disgust.

“If the federal government says you’re not Indian,” she concluded, “state recognition doesn’t mean a thing!”
She’s stopped dancing, too.

“I can’t bring myself to go into a dance circle without being in tune with my atmosphere, my religion and my people.”

Original claim

Johnny Johns, council chief with the Monacan Indians, supports federal recognition for the Virginia tribes but finds the procedure absurd.

“To me, it’s the opposite of what it should be, 180 degrees out of phase.

“We were an established culture. Why do we have to be recognized by the ones who came later? Shouldn’t it be the other way around?”

State recognition

Virginia’s legislature recognized eight indigenous Indian tribes in the 1980s:

Mattaponi and Pamunkey: With two of the oldest reservations in the country, these two tribes were recognized in 1983. The Mattaponi Tribe has a 150-acre reservation on the Mattaponi River in King William County. The Pamunkey has a 1,200-acre reservation in King William County on the Pamunkey River and claims the legendary Chief Powhatan and Pocahontas among its own.

Also recognized in 1983: The Chickahominy, based in Charles City County; the Eastern Chickahominy, based in New Kent County; the Upper Mattaponi, with headquarters in King William County; and the Rappahannock, with headquarters in King and Queen County.

In 1985: The legislature recognized the Nansemond, living around Norfolk, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.

In 1989: State lawmakers recognized the Monacan Indian Nation of Amherst County.

Posted in My Work, Thu, 28/05/09