WEROWOCOMOCO, Va. (AP) — On land once occupied by their ancestors, members of seven Virginia Indian tribes gathered Wednesday to celebrate being formally recognized by the federal government. It was an emotional day for tribal leaders, who partook in traditional Native American dances with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman, representatives from the Virginia governor’s and U.S. Senate’s offices, and officials from the National Park Service. “It’s been a long time coming,” Nansemond Chief Lee Lockamy said on the grounds of Werowocomoco, the former home of Chief Powhatan and Pocahontas, in Gloucester.
The elected officials, whose crisp suits looked out of place next to the colorful regalia worn by tribal members, called the recognition — which makes the tribes eligible for federal funding and services— long overdue. “We all sometimes lamented and said, ‘Is this ever going to happen?’ ” Wittman said. “Through faith, through dedication, today is indeed here.”
The Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Monacan, Nansemond, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi tribes have been trying to get federal recognition for decades, both through bills and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. In 2015, the Pamunkey became the first in the state to receive federal recognition from the bureau. The effort involved painstakingly assembling the documentation needed to meet seven standards set by the government, including extensive genealogical records showing that their current members descended from the historical tribe. That federal recognition paved the way, in part, for the Pamunkey to get into the gaming business and to plan a $700 million casino on land approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that was once part of Pamunkey territory.
The federal recognition of the six other tribes came through the signing of the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, spearheaded by Wittman and signed into law in January. Unlike the Pamunkey, those six tribes are specifically barred from launching gambling enterprises. But they’re still eligible for steps like taking back historical and cultural tribal artifacts, consulting on federal agency actions and receiving federal funds for housing, education and medical care.
Zinke, who was appointed to his position in 2017, said he wanted to make sure the government is in partnership with the tribes. “My job is to make sure the tribes are sovereign. And sovereignty means something — that the destiny of every nation is theirs to decide. And in many ways, it’s to get the government out of the way so the tribes can decide.”
For Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson, it felt good to finally see the work of generations of tribal members come to fruition. “This is liberty for us. This is justice for us,” she said. “And we’re finally seeing the promises that are inherent in our constitution that we’ve been left out of all these years.”