A long-stalled quest by six Virginia Indian tribes began anew Wednesday at a congressional hearing on legislation to grant the groups federal recognition.
“This is a proud story, which deserves a happy ending,” Chief Stephen R. Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe told the House Committee on Natural Resources. “We must come full circle and be embraced by the Congress of the United States of America.”
Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat, is the main sponsor of a measure that would grant federal recognition to the roughly 3,500 members of the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Nansemond, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi tribes and the Monacan Indian Nation.
Gaining the status would allow the tribes to compete for educational funds and other grants and benefits open to federally recognized tribes. More than 560 tribes have achieved the status by meeting stringent federal criteria or through means such as congressional legislation, executive orders and the enactment of treaties.
Mr. Moran initially introduced similar legislation in 1999, but the bill has never passed both houses of Congress.
Last year, a version passed the House - the first time it had cleared a congressional chamber - but died after a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. A Moran aide said the legislation appears to be on a fast-track in the House this year.
“It’s about their dignity - being recognized for who they are,” said Mr. Moran, who testified before the committee along with Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat. “That’s what this legislation is all about.”
Indian tribes can achieve federal recognition through a process set up in 1978 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In the roughly 30 years since, the bureau has granted 16 petitions for recognition and denied 28 others through this process.
However, the bureau’s criteria include a provision that tribes prove they have been identified as “an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.”
Backers of the Virginia tribes say Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 forced Indians to identify themselves as “colored” and led to the destruction and alteration of genealogical records, making the bureau process difficult for the six tribes.
The tribes face added difficulties because they signed peace treaties with the English before the United States existed, Mr. Kaine said.
Mr. Kaine additionally spoke to committee members about the heritage of the Virginia tribes - a history entwined with the settlement of Jamestown.
The governor said the tribes helped ensure the survival of the early American settlers, and noted that hundreds of tribal members have served in the military since the Civil War.
“If it were not for the forbearance of these tribes … it is very clear that the Jamestown settlement would have perished, and that the history of Virginia and the nation would have been a different history,” Mr. Kaine said.
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