NORFOLK, Va. (AP) — The Department of Interior granted federal recognition to a Virginia Indian tribe for the first time on Thursday, more than 400 years after the first permanent English settlers encountered those Indians.
The federal designation of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe allows it to receive certain federal benefits on medical care, housing and education, among other things. The Pamunkey are only the second tribe to be granted recognition since President Barack Obama took office, joining hundreds of others nationwide that have received that distinction over the years.
It also leaves open the possibility of the tribe seeking a casino through a separate approval process, though the 200-member tribe has said it has no plans to do so. Still, the tribe’s application was opposed by MGM Resorts, which is building a casino at the National Harbor outside the nation’s capital in Maryland.
The Pamunkey’s 1,200-acre reservation is about 25 miles east of Richmond on the Pamunkey River in rural King William County. A California-based group that has supported gambling limits in that state also opposed the Pamunkey’s application. In the United States, there are 493 Indian casinos and 1,262 commercial casinos.
Nationwide, there are 566 federal recognized tribes and hundreds more want to join their ranks, including 14 others in Virginia. Since 1978, the government has recognized 17 tribes and rejected the petitions of 34 other groups.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed recognition because they said the tribe had a history of banning interracial marriages with blacks. The tribe has said the ban was repealed in 2012 — two years after the tribe had submitted materials to the Interior Department for its bid for recognition. The Interior Department first said the Pamunkey met its requirements for recognition in January 2014 and a final decision was expected in March, but that was delayed after public opposition arose.
Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown told the CBC in a letter that the intermarriage ban was rooted in Virginia’s culture of racism, where “Racial intermixture was raised repeatedly as a rationale to divest us of our reservation and our Indian status.”
Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act made it illegal for whites and non-whites to marry, and the registrar of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Plecker, launched an aggressive campaign at the time to prevent the “mongrelization” of the white “master race” by what he called “pseudo-Indians.”
Plecker believed Indians wanted to ‘escape Negro status’ in order to attend white schools and marry whites. Plecker ordered that Indians be classified as “colored” on birth and marriage certificates and threatened doctors and midwives with jail for noncompliance.
The Pamunkey is already recognized by Virginia’s government, and each Thanksgiving in an oft-photographed ceremony the tribe’s chief visits the governor of Virginia in a tribute ceremony. The ceremony traces its roots to a treaty signed in 1677 between the colony’s governor and several Indian leaders, including the Pamunkey.
The tribe was considered the most powerful tribe in the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom, which greeted the English settlers at Jamestown, and claims Pocahontas among its lineage.
Brock Vergakis can be reached at www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis
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