- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 8, 2006

WILLIAMSBURG — Virginia Indians must better define themselves, creating tribal constitutions and taking steps to prove they’re unique nations deserving federal recognition, speakers said at a symposium last week held near where the state’s Indians and whites first made contact in 1607.

“Virginia Indians: 400 Years of Survival” is one of a handful of Indian-themed events in the 18-month Jamestown 2007 commemoration. The three-day symposium featured panel discussions on key Indian issues and tours of area tribal centers.

The goal was to educate the public about Indian concerns and discuss ways to keep tribes relevant in a changing America, organizers said.

“We’ve had nothing on a comprehensive level like this,” said Upper Mattaponi Chief Kenneth Adams, who also wanted to dispel myths.

“We’re not some folks who died out in 1607,” he said. “We are still here; we are definitely thriving.”

But they face hurdles. The most pressing is earning tribal recognition, said Mark Tilden, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund.

Such recognition can mean access to federal funds, a lifeline for poor tribes, he said.

“Not only does it set up a government-to-government relationship … but it really opens the door to federal services,” he said. “It’s one of those actions that is profound.”

It’s also elusive. Six of Virginia’s eight Indian tribes have long sought federal recognition, a lengthy process that involves proving a tribe’s continued existence going back to the first contact with whites.

For Virginia Indians, that means digging up centuries of history and documents, many damaged during the Civil War.

“These tribes have been trying for 400 years,” Mr. Tilden told the audience Thursday. “The federal regulatory process just does not work anymore.”

But tribes also face shrinking relevance as immigrants shift national priorities, University of Minnesota professor David Wilkins said.

Mr. Wilkins said tribes must form bylaws and tribal charters to create a distinct community voice and avoid becoming just another minority.

Jamestown 2007 organizers want to bring diversity to the commemoration of the nation’s first permanent English settlement with a series of ethnic events, spokesman Kevin Crossett said.

Jamestown’s founding has been commemorated every 50 years since 1607; Mr. Crossett said that this is the first time focus has shifted from white colonists.

Thursday, whites sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Indians sporting colorful tribal beadwork and black audience members in African-themed garb.

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