Virginia Tribe Awaiting Federal Recognition

The Pamunkey Tribe in Virginia will have to wait until late July to find out if it will receive federal recognition, due to charges of gender and racial discrimination. Officials at MGM National Harbor, a casino resort opening in Maryland next summer, also fear federal recognition could allow the tribe to open a competing casino.

Under pressure from critics, the Bureau of Indian Affairs recently moved the deadline to late July for determining if the Pamunkey Tribe in Virginia should be federally recognized. The tribe, which claims Pocahontas an ancestor, traces its roots prior to the founding of the nation. However its records were destroyed early last century. “This is an outrageous injustice. These are the Indian tribes that enabled the original English settlers to survive,” said former Virginia Congressman Jim Moran who has advocated for federal recognition of the Pamunkey for nearly two decades.

Among opponents are a group of five female Congressional lawmakers who asked the BIA to look into claims of gender discrimination in the tribe. Also members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott, want the BIA to research the tribe’s possible racial discrimination policies.

Also opposed are officials at MGM National Harbor, a destination casino resort scheduled to open in Prince George’s County, Maryland, in 2016. MGM officials fear federal recognition of the Pamunkey tribe could bring gambling to southern Virginia, which would compete with their new casino.

Professor Gregory Smithers, an expert on native Americans at Virginia Commonwealth University said, “The Pamunkey do claim Pocahontas as one of their descendants, and there are many Virginians who claim a connection to Pocahontas and the Powhatan at the time of first contact with the English.” He noted the tribe signed a treaty with the British in 1658, giving them a reservation in Virginia, but much of their land was taken away over the centuries.

Current Pamunkey leaders said the tribe has about 200 members, but if the federal government recognizes them, more members could come forward.