Virginia's Pamunkey tribe seeks federal recognition

By Jim Nolan
Richmond, Virginia (AP) November 2010
It took more than 30 years to document 400 years of American Indian history in Virginia.

But now the Pamunkey Indian tribe -- which counts Pocahontas and Powhatan, the paramount chief, as members -- believes it has enough evidence to make its case for federal recognition.

Recognition by the federal government would open the door for tribal members to receive special benefits in education, housing and medical care.

Pamunkey leaders journeyed to Washington this month to hand over two crates containing more than 1,000 documents attesting to the tribe’s history as a fully functioning community and government since 1789 -- the year the U.S. Constitution went into effect.

“We basically had to document our existence,” said Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray, who made the trip with the documents to the Office of Acknowledgement in the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We went back further than that, into the 1600s,” he added. “It’s probably the most extensive collection of information regarding our history.”

And that history, according to Gray, shows the Pamunkey aided the colonists in the Revolutionary War and unionists during the Civil War. He said tribal members and attorneys made three trips to England to document genealogy and real estate connections between the Pamunkey and the land dating to the 1600s.

The Pamunkey were recognized by Virginia in 1677. They are one of two Virginia tribes with dedicated land, occupying 1,200 acres inside the boundaries of King William County.

While the Pamunkey are seeking recognition from the federal government through an administrative process, six other Virginia tribes are seeking federal recognition through an act of Congress. They are the Chickahominy Tribe, Chickahominy Indian Tribe Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Monacan Tribe and the Nansemond Tribe.

A 2009 bill sponsored by Reps. James P. Moran, D-8th, and Robert J. Wittman, R-1st, and companion legislation put forward by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., has cleared House and Senate committees and is awaiting a vote in the full Senate.

An eighth tribe, the Mattaponi, which also has a reservation, has not sought formal federal recognition.

Gray said the tribe expects to hear back from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in several months with any questions it has regarding its application for recognition. Then it becomes a waiting game; there is no timetable for when the agency could rule on its application.

But after waiting hundreds of years and working for 30 years, tribe members have learned how to be patient.

“We are fully confident we can meet the BIA criteria,” Gray said. “A lot of this was on principle. We wanted to show the world our history.”