Virginia Tribes Fight for Sovereignty

Times Staff Writer

Nearly 400 years ago, British colonists came ashore near this verdant watershed of Chesapeake Bay, surviving the first brutal winter only with the help of the Native Americans who had lived on the land for centuries.

But as the Commonwealth of Virginia prepares for the commemoration of that 1607 arrival in Jamestown, the descendants of those Indians are embroiled in a fight over a different legacy of that year: acknowledgment of their sovereignty.

Though the first to greet British colonists, the tribes -- the Upper Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monacan, Nansemond and Rappahannock, with a total population of about 3,500 -- are among the last to gain official recognition from the U.S. government.

Attaining that status would give the tribes control over their own government affairs and access to a gold mine of federal funding, including health, housing and governance grants for Native Americans.

Allocations vary widely across the nation’s 562 federally recognized tribes. In 2002, for example, the Navajos -- with a population of 250,000 -- received more than $321 million, while the 1,055-member Morongo tribe of California got $560,000, according to federal budget figures.


The unique situation of the Virginia tribes is, in part, the result of the initial contact with the colonists. The tribes’ only treaties with any government entity were with the British settlers, and those agreements were never formally acknowledged by the United States.

But the tribes’ position worsened during the early part of the 20th century, when the state government essentially legislated the Indian race out of existence.

Eighty years ago, during the height of the eugenics movement -- a now-discredited science that believed, among other things, in preserving the superiority of the white race by prohibiting racial intermarriage -- the Virginia General Assembly passed the Racial Integrity Act, which defined racial categories as “white” and “colored.” Indians were listed as colored.

Now that law is affecting the effort of the tribes to gain federal recognition and the government benefits that could follow.

In the absence of a treaty, the usual way of achieving federal recognition is through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Among the documentation required is proof that a tribe has been in continuous existence since 1900 -- but because official paperwork in the early to mid-1900s expunged the tribal members’ racial identity, such proof is difficult to come by.

So the tribes have called on Congress for help.

“We want to be on an equal playing field,” said Kenneth F. Adams, 57, chief of the Upper Mattaponi. “It’s not about money. It’s not about education. It’s not about hospitals, even though those benefits come along with the recognition. It’s about the proper dignity that’s afforded with this recognition.”

Though dozens of states had laws prohibiting racial intermarriage, none were as harsh as Virginia’s, scholars say. Much of this was because of the firebrand tactics of Walter Ashby Plecker, head of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics from 1912 until 1946.

Plecker conducted a “brutal, repressive and extra-legal campaign against Native Americans,” said Gregory M. Dorr, a University of Alabama historian who is writing a book about the Virginia eugenics movement.

Plecker helped draft the law and was one of the most zealous enforcers of the policy, which covered birth, marriage and death certificates, school records and any other document filed with the state that designated an individual’s race.

He sent letters to school officials, county registrars and doctors, Dorr said, threatening them with jail if anyone was identified as Indian, rather than colored. He even went so far as to list common Indian surnames that should be classified as colored.

It was only through the influence of some of Virginia’s most prominent families -- descendants of colonist John Rolfe and Pocahontas, a Powhatan Indian princess -- that individuals with 1/16th Indian ancestry or less were exempted from classification as colored. But that did not apply to most of the state’s Native Americans.

“My parents and grandparents never talked about being Indian. Not until I was a teen. And when I asked, they had one simple reaction: ‘We were trying to protect you,’ ” said Gene Adkins, 64, a member of the Eastern Chickahominy and president of the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, which is overseeing the drive for federal recognition.

After Plecker retired in 1946, his legacy began to fade; in 1967, the Supreme Court struck down the Racial Integrity Act. By the 1980s, Virginia’s tribes began winning state recognition, which gave them more of a say in state government affairs.

Slowly, Indians began to officially reclaim their racial identity. In 1997, the Virginia General Assembly formally apologized for the 1924 law and offered to pay for Indians to have the race on their birth certificates corrected.

That offer rejuvenated the tribes’ interest in federal recognition, so they filed papers with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The application is arduous, requiring hundreds of items detailing a tribe’s members, autonomy, governance, contin- uous existence since 1900, and history.

But because of the Racial Integrity Act, the tribes could not use official records to prove their continuous existence. They would need to search for secondary documents, such as church registries or family papers, which probably would be scattered across many locations and might not still exist.

So with support from Virginia’s Republican senators, George Allen and John W. Warner, and Democratic Rep. James P. Moran, legislation to grant federal recognition to the six tribes was introduced in the House and the Senate. The House bill remains in committee. The Senate version was approved by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in May.

But fears about casino gambling have stalled the legislation. Although the measure would not change the fact that tribes must obey state gambling laws -- and current Virginia law prohibits casino gambling -- some people want a prohibition on casinos written into the federal legislation recognizing the tribes.

Though the tribes say they have no interest in setting up casinos, they also say any conditions attached to federal recognition would undermine the point of sovereignty.

So they have hired a lobbyist to help plead their case. They have garnered support from the Virginia General Assembly, Gov. Mark R. Warner, the National Congress of American Indians, and even the coordinators of the Jamestown 2007 commemoration.

And while the tribes help prepare for the anniversary celebration, many members say they are doing so grudgingly.

“It would be extremely ironic,” said Adams, the Upper Mattaponi chief, “if we participate in this event that was the beginning of the United States as we know it today -- and not be properly recognized by the United States.”