Virginia Tribe’s Federal Recognition on Hold

The application by the Virginia tribe whose ancestors greeted the first settlers in the state 400 years ago has been waiting for years to be granted federal recognition. Currently the application is being held up by an appeal from a California anti-casino group.

The Pamunkey tribe of Virginia, a tribe that tradition says greeted the Jamestown colonists in 1607, is waiting in vain for federal recognition.

Virginia recognizes the tribe, which has a 1,200-acre reservation that has existed for centuries. Federal recognition, however, would allow the tribe to operate a casino.

Federal recognition is currently frozen while an appeal from an unlikely source, a California casino watchdog group, Stand Up For California, which has challenged federal recognition of the Virginia tribe because, it says, it could set a precedent that would allow tribes with similar circumstances to be recognized. MGM, which has contemplated building a casino in Maryland, had earlier joined with Stand Up For California in opposing the recognition, but has since withdraw its opposition.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs in July announced that it planned to recognize the 208-member tribe, making it the first Virginia tribe that could have operated a casino. There are 11 tribes in the state. None have achieved federal recognition.

The BIA’s director, Interior Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn wrote that the tribe “submitted more than sufficient evidence to satisfy each of the seven mandatory criteria for acknowledgment set forth in the regulations … meets the requirements for a government-to-government relationship with the United States.”

The October 6 challenge with the Interior Board of Appeals (IBIA), which operates independently of the bureau stopped recognition in place. The challenged claimed a lack of tribal authenticity or a distinct Pamunkey identity, something that the recently installed Chief Robert Gray finds ridiculous.

 “The appeal has no substance,” he commented recently to the Washington Post. “Our petition is one of the strongest they’ve ever seen.” He added, “We are and always have been an Indian tribe. We’re proud of that fact and for all these years laid low but decided to seek federal recognition even when the process was difficult.”

The BIA supports that contention, writing that “evidence in the record is voluminous and extraordinary…shows external observers identified the Pamunkey petitioner as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis.”

The tribe’s website does not claim to exercise “sovereignty” or government functions, but claims to “educate lawmakers, law enforcement, local governments and citizens about the cultural, economic and political impacts of state and tribal government gaming.”

Despite this setback the tribe is embroiled in a controversy with some of its members as to whether a casino would even be a good idea. Gray’s predecessor, Kevin Brown, was voted out of office over his resistance to a casino.

The IBIA says that Stand Up for California must provide documentation of its “interested party” status, before it will rule on its petition. Cheryl Schmit, who operates the watchdog group, argues that the BIA did not follow its own rules in granting recognition to the tribe.

She was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying “In the case of the Pamunkey, Interior did not follow its own requirements. Failure to do so creates an inequitable practice. Moreover, it creates the potential of creating tribes for the sole purpose of a casino ‘for gaming investors.’”

Other tribes that are hoping for federal recognition got some encouragement in December when Congress passed the “omnibus” spending bill and President Obama signed it.

There was cause for worry earlier this year when some members of Congress threatened not to fund the BIA, and there was a movement to pass a bill that would take recognition away from the executive branch and reserve it to Congress.

The interest by some representatives arose when the Obama administration published Part 83, which made it easier for some tribes to achieve recognition by reducing the requirement for showing that a tribe had been a political entity for many years.

However, the omnibus bill included $2.8 for the BIA, including a $195 million increase.