RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Maybe they needed a celebrity - say, someone like Wayne Newton - to make their pitch.
But they didn’t have one, and a delegation from Virginia’s Appalachian Cherokee Nation was sent away empty-handed last Monday in their quest for state recognition of their tribe.
Descendants of refugees from the famous “Trail of Tears” relocation in the 19th century, the Appalachian Cherokees have been seeking state recognition for three years.
The state’s imprimatur would help the tribe get grants to build a community health clinic and a home for homeless children in southwest Virginia, Gregory (Soaring Osprey) French of Virginia Beach, the group’s spokesman, told the House Rules Committee.
But state Sen. Kenny Alexander’s legislation (SJ87) to recognize the tribe was carried over to the 2015 General Assembly session after the committee chairman, House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford County, expressed doubts about it.
“I’m just not sure that we’re ready today to do this,” Howell said.
Alexander, D-Norfolk, retorted in frustration: “This is the third year they’ve been asked to wait. At some point, you should just tell them to go home. Vote it up or vote it down.”
Howell assured Alexander the committee would resolve the matter after another year of study.
Alexander said after the vote he’ll take Howell at his word, but he’s not happy about it. “Every year they move the goal posts,” he said. “It’s not fair.”
Alexander compared the delegation’s reception Monday with the 2010 appearance in Richmond by Newton, the Las Vegas crooner, on behalf of legislation seeking recognition of his tribe, the Patawomecks.
That measure - sponsored by Howell - sailed through the Assembly after the “Danke Schoen” singer dazzled the committee with his profession of pride in his Native American heritage.
“That bill passed out of here in seconds,” Alexander groused.
Virginia now recognizes 11 Native American tribes. The Cherokees’ failure to win recognition has hindered the tribe from achieving its goals, French said.
French, a member of the tribal council, said his Cherokee ancestors have lived in Virginia for 500 years. The tribe has about 500 members, including 80 in Hampton Roads, but there are believed to be as many as 10,000 Cherokee descendants in Virginia, he said.
Thousands of Cherokees were living in the southern Appalachian region when the U.S. government forced them to migrate to Oklahoma in the 1820s and 1830s. That harsh 1,000-mile trek became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
There were fewer federal troops in Virginia to carry out the forced march than there were in North Carolina, French said, so many of the tribe’s Virginia members were able to avoid the relocation.
“The Virginia Cherokees hid out in the mountains,” he said. “We never left.”
Howell’s move to delay the recognition question for a year was prompted by a letter to the committee from William Leighty, a former chief of staff to Govs. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. Warner and Kaine are now U.S. senators and Leighty is a Richmond-based consultant.
Leighty said he was speaking for himself as a student of Virginia history. He said he believes the state needs a more deliberative process for recognizing Native American tribes - one that includes a scholarly review of historical records.
“We need a more meaningful process than we have of just passing a resolution as if it was a championship basketball team,” he said.
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com
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