Wednesday, September 17, 2008

VA Tribes near Recognition

Indian tribes near federal recognition bid

Gary Emerling (Contact)
Monday, September 15, 2008

A congressional bill to give federal recognition to six Virginia American Indian tribes will come before a Senate committee this month, marking the closest the tribes have come to that goal after years of trying.

"It just gives us more encouragement that we are making progress," said 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. "It's been a long, slow process, so any positive step like that gives us a little more to hold onto."

The Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal recognition Act would allow the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Monacan Indian Nation, Nansemond, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi tribes to compete for educational funds and other grants, as well as health care benefits open to federally recognized tribes.

Virginia Rep. James P. Moran, a Democrat, initially introduced the bill in 1999. But the measure has seen limited progress over the years, in part because of concerns that it would result in the tribes pursuing casino and gambling interests in the state, accusations the bill's supporters deny.

The House passed a version in May 2007 that curbed the tribes' ability to pursue casino deals, marking the first time the measure had cleared either congressional chamber. The bill then was sent to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and is scheduled for a hearing Sept. 25 - one day before Congress is scheduled to adjourn.

Lawmakers are not expected to return until after the November presidential election, meaning time is short for the measure to make it to the Senate floor for possible passage this year.

"We know we're up against pretty tall odds right now, because time is running out," Mr. Adkins said. "Being an election year, too, it's just going to be difficult."

Mr. Moran said it's "conceivable" that lawmakers could pass the measure in a last-minute rush this year, but added he's not optimistic. He said having the hearing will at least build momentum for efforts to pass the bill next year.

"It means that even if we don't get the legislation done at the end of the year, we have a stronger record to begin next year's effort," Mr. Moran said. "I think eventually we will get this."

The six tribes covered by the bill consist of roughly 3,500 people residing mostly in the Tidewater area of the state, Mr. Adkins said.

Tribes typically achieve federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 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."

Michael Cook, executive director of the United South and Eastern Tribes - an organization that represents 25 federally recognized tribes in states such as Connecticut and Louisiana - said the bureau process has its problems, but "it's the only route that is objective and has been in place for a while."

"It needs to be fixed, there's no question about it," Mr. Cook said. "But that is all we have at this point in time."

Still, those pushing the bill's passage on behalf of the Virginia tribes say the state's Racial Integrity Act of 1924 prevents the groups' participation in the program.

The law's enactment forced Indians to identify themselves as "colored" and led to the destruction and alteration of many genealogical records - actions that amounted to what some have deemed a "paper genocide."

"People were threatened with imprisonment for noting 'Indian' on a birth certificate," former Virginia Sen. George Allen, a Republican, said during a June 2006 hearing before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "Many generations were, of course, affected by this policy that was enforced throughout Virginia and left many Indians searching for their true identity."

The hearing follows lobbying efforts in favor of the bill by Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine and Sen. Jim Webb, both Democrats.

Mr. Webb sent a letter in October to the Indian Affairs Committee urging a markup of the bill and met with committee Chairman Sen. Byron L. Dorgan, North Dakota Democrat, to further press the issue. Mr. Webb called the bill "a simple matter of fairness."

"Four hundred years after the founding of America's first colony at Jamestown, these six tribes deserve to be placed on equal footing with our nation's 562 other federally recognized tribes," he said.

Mr. Kaine in June also sent a letter to the committee urging a markup of the measure.

"It is past time to reconcile history," Mr. Kaine wrote to Mr. Dorgan and the committee's vice chairwoman, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican. "It is time for these Virginia native peoples to be recognized by their own country."