Recognition Gamble

Recognition Gamble

Indian chiefs greet Godspeed with a press conference demanding recognition.

When the original Godspeed landed with two other ships at Jamestown, no natives were waiting on the shore to greet them. The first English landing party traveled eight miles into the thick Virginia interior, discovering a hastily abandoned fire where several oysters had been slowly cooking over an open flame. According to contemporaneous accounts, the adventurers helped themselves to the food and moved on.

Now, after four centuries of cultural domination and racial discrimination, the Indians want their oysters back — figuratively speaking.

When the new Godspeed arrived in Alexandria for an eight-day festival celebrating the founding of Jamestown, a group of Virginia chiefs were waiting for them. This time, they held a press conference to advocate federal recognition of six tribes — a status that they say could bring educational benefits, financial resources and emotional validation of their culture.

“Federal recognition for these tribes is long overdue,” said Rep. Jim Moran (D-8), who has sponsored legislation in the United States House of Representatives to bring recognition to the tribes. “We can’t change the past, but we can certainly affect the future.”

Chief Stephan Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe took the microphone in a passionate appeal for recognition. He said that acquiring federal status would allow his tribe members to get health-care benefits, social services, college scholarships and sovereignty over their land. He implored those present to support Moran’s bill — which enjoys the bipartisan support of Sen.George Allen, who has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

“When I look at the Godspeed, it’s with mixed emotions,” Adkins said. “It represents a diminution of our culture, a time when our land was stolen from us. We can’t in good conscious call this a celebration.”

THE BILL, H.R. 3349, is called the “Thomasina Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2005.” Jordan, the act’s namesake, spearheaded the movement for federal recognition until her death on May 23, 1999. By putting her name in the title of the bill, Moran hopes to honor Jordan and all the other members of Virginia tribes who have been denied the benefit of recognition.

“In Congress, we’ve been busy fighting about immigration,” Moran said. “But the only people that should have a beef about immigration are the people who are standing behind me.”

A series of findings included in the bill traces a long history of suppression, starting with Jamestown and continuing to the present day. For each tribe, the findings detail the circumstances of their present situation: treaties signed with colonial England, forced migration from their tribal lands and eventual designation as “colored” — pushing the tribe members to the fringes of society under Jim Crow-era segregation.

“While other Indian tribes signed treaties with the United States government, these tribes signed treaties with King Charles,” said Liz Walker, an attorney who represents the tribes in court. “So they’ve been kind of lost in the shuffle of history.”

THE LANGUAGE OF the bill spells out the benefits of federal recognition with crisp legal precision. It says that the status entitles the tribes “all future services and benefits provided by the Federal Government to federally recognized Indian tribes without regard to the existence of a reservation for the Tribe or the location of the residence of any member on or near any Indian reservation.” One section in each title specifically denies that the act “shall add, expand, reduce, or affect in any manner any hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering, or water rights of the Tribe and its members.”

“The reason why this legislation has been stalled is because there is a fear that these tribes will start gambling operations,” Moran said. “They can have gambling now, but they choose not to. They don’t believe in gambling.”

Moran said that if one of the six tribes decides at some point in the future to start a gambling operation, it would first need to get approval from the Virginia General Assembly. He said that the threat of new gambling operations in the commonwealth could be easily squelched by legislators in Richmond, and that holding up federal recognition over the this issue was a red herring that was hurting members of the tribes that are seeking recognition.

“There is no issue of gambling with us,” said Kenneth Branham, chief of the Monacan Tribe. “And it’s likely that there never will be.”

U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) opposes the bill, because it opens an avenue for tribes to open casinos, even if it requires state approval.

"The Congressman will remain opposed to recognition of Virginia tribes until the language specifically prohibits gambling," said Wolf's spokesman Dan Scandling. "Write 'No gambling' in the bill."