Three of Virginia's most influential lawmakers came to Capitol Hill on Thursday to lobby in favor of a long-stalled congressional bill that would give federal recognition to six Virginia American Indian tribes.
"This is something we've got to rectify," said Rep. James P. Moran, who testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs along with fellow Democrats Sen. Jim Webb and Gov. Tim Kaine. "This is about their pride and about their heritage and what they leave as a legacy to their children and grandchildren."
Thursday's hearing was a milestone in the legislative process for the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, which Mr. Moran initially introduced in 1999 but had not been passed by a congressional chamber until the House approved a version in May of last year.
The bill would provide federal recognition for the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Monacan Indian Nation, Nansemond, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi tribes, allowing them to compete for educational funds and other grants, as well as health care benefits open to federally recognized tribes.
Tribes typically achieve federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which recognizes more than 560 tribes in the country. The bureau's criteria includes a provision that tribes prove they have been identified as "an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900."
During the hearing, Mr. Kaine said Virginia's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 — which forced Indians to identify themselves as "colored" and led to the destruction and alteration of genealogical records — makes the BIA process virtually impossible for the six tribes.
Mr. Moran called the law's effects a "paper genocide." Mr. Kaine said the Virginia tribes face added difficulties because they signed peace treaties with the English and integrated into society in the 1600s, before the United States existed.
Said Mr. Webb: "It's almost impossible for this situation to be resolved through the regular BIA process."
Committee members also considered efforts by tribes elsewhere in the country to obtain federal recognition. But the hearing came one day before Congress' expected adjournment, leaving little hope for the Virginia measure's passage this year.
Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat and committee chairman, said he called the session in hopes that the committee "will take action and make decisions" early next year.
Wayne Adkins, an assistant chief with the Chickahominy tribe and president of the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, which has lobbied for the bill's passage, said he was encouraged by the hearing and the chairman's comments.
"To me it sounds like we are on the right path, and if we stick with it, we should be successful," Mr. Adkins said.
In his closing remarks to the committee, Mr. Kaine stressed how the tribes have contributed to Virginia by attending the state's schools, working in the state's fields and factories and fighting in the country's wars.
"They have become part of us," he said. "It just strikes me that that's worth something, that that has a value and that there ought to be an acknowledgement of these hundreds of years of living peacefully."