Federal Recognition for Virginia Tribes

The year was 1607. The location was Jamestown. The people were indigenous, and life was about to change.

For up to 22,000 years pre-contact by the Europeans, the Chickahominy and other Algonguian and Powhatan tribes inhabited what we now know as Virginia. To put it simply, when John Smith arrived, Pocahontas was already there.

The first British settlers established the Virginia Colony as a permanent residence in 1607. The Pilgrims followed in 1620 to Virginia and Massachusetts. After 70 years and still unable to survive on their own, the British looked to the tribes for protection, and the tribes gave it. In 1677, the Chickahominy and several other tribes signed a peace treaty pledging fidelity to the British Crown and committing up to 500 bowmen should the Spanish attack the settlers. Some 111 years later in 1788, the state of Virginia was established.

Yet this history pre-dating even John Smith was not enough for the tribes to gain federal recognition as “tribes,” with all the rights and benefits that confers in the U.S. Instead, in 2015, more than 400 years after their ancestors greeted John Smith, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe was federally recognized – the first Virginia tribe to attain this status.

Some Virginia tribes such as the Chickahominy worked nearly 20 years to establish all the criteria deemed necessary by the U.S. government for federal recognition. For some Virginia tribes, the road to recognition was even longer.

The Rappahannock Tribe incorporated in 1921 to solidify their tribal government and begin their work toward state and federal recognition. The tribe was state-recognized on March 25, 1983. Their federal work, started in 1921 by Chief George Nelson, was reactivated in 1996 and continued through 2017 – all told a 96-year journey. Today the Rappahannock Tribe is led by Chief G. Anne Richardson, who was elected in 1998 and is the first woman to lead the tribe since the 1700s.

At last on Jan. 11 this year, President Trump signed into law the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017, at once recognizing the Rappahannock, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Monacan and Nansemond tribes as sovereign nations and bringing the count of federally-recognized tribes to 573.

Over the next four years, these six Virginia tribes are entitled to an estimated $67 million in federal assistance for education, health care and housing. Other rights and benefits also confer with federal recognition. If the tribes request it, the Department of the Interior can take their lands into trust for the benefit of the tribes’ 4,400 members. This would not affect their hunting, fishing, trapping, gathering or water rights. Gaming operations, however, remain prohibited.

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