Righting a 400-Year Wrong

This is a guest post by Darren Rippy. Darren is a graduate student in the Master of Public Policy program at the College of William & Mary. He is a summer policy fellow at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy.

Of the 562 federally recognized native tribes, not one is a Virginia tribe. Currently there are six tribes (Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Monacan, Nansemond, Rappahannock, and Upper Mattaponi) in Virginia who are only one legislative step away from finally receiving the federal recognition that is long overdue. A sustained 10-year partnership between the Virginia Council of Churches and the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life has made this near achievement possible. Unfortunately, the long road traveled may be all for naught if the Senate bill, S1178, granting the tribes federal recognition does not reach the Senate floor for a vote before the August recess. If this recognition does not happen during the current session, it may take another generation to garner the near unanimous support for S1178.

It is an accident of history that the Virginia tribes have never received federal recognition. Hostilities between the native tribes of Virginia and the King of England ended during the seventeenth century, before the United States was a nation. As the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life states,

Documentation, treaties and other legal actions (including the establishment of reservations for the tribes) precede the United States Constitution in treaties with the King of England.

A result of this historical fact is that these treaties were never recognized by the federal government of the United States. This is only part of the story, however.

During the early twentieth century there was a systematic attempt, under the leadership of Dr. Walter Plecker as registrar of Virginia’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, to alter all official documentation identifying individuals as “Indian” to “colored.” This “paper genocide” has made it nearly impossible for these tribes to furnish the appropriate historic documentation proving their legitimate and continued existence to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The result is the necessity to seek federal recognition through the legislative process.

Last June, House bill HR1385 was passed by the House of Representatives. Soon after, Senate bill S1178 was introduced in the Senate by Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has recommended that this bill be considered by the Senate and has been placed on the Senate Legislative Calendar. One Senator, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, has placed a hold on this bill, preventing the bill from reaching the Senate floor for a vote.

Why is Senator Coburn placing a hold on S1178? Federal recognition of these tribes has the unanimous support of all Virginia state legislators, Governor Bob McDonnell, and the entire Congressional delegation from Virginia. Furthermore, none of the 562 federally recognized tribes oppose the recognition of the six Virginia tribes. Lastly, there is certainty that S1178 would pass with ease if the bill could reach the Senate floor for a vote. So why the hold? Because Senator Coburn is concerned S1178 will add to the deficit.

The notion that S1178 will significantly or substantially contribute to the federal deficit is beyond absurdity. Federal recognition of the six tribes, with a total membership of about 3,400 individuals, will provide the tribes access to existing benefits offered through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Services. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that federal recognition the six tribes will have a budgetary impact of less than $1 per American between 2010-2014. It must be iterated that the pool of federal money for these benefits is already in existence.

It is unfortunate that the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Monacan, Nansemond, Rappahannock, and Upper Mattaponi tribes are being denied the recognition that is due to them. The Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2009 is not a partisan issue. This bill is about honoring an aspect of Virginia’s storied history and recognizing the groups who were directly involved in that history.

I ask that all Virginians thank Senators Jim Webb and Mark Warner for their hard work on this bill and to ask them to continue to use any and every legislative means available to them to get S1178 to the Senate floor and passed before the August recess.

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