Pamunkey Are the First Virginia Tribe with Federal Recognition

It was a good day – July 2, 2015 – a day of vindication when the Pamunkey became federally recognized, and we are excited for the benefits this will bring their people. When I read the good news, so many thoughts rushed in:  how long the Pamunkey have worked toward federal status, how it will support economic growth and how other tribes can learn from them. All the tribes in Virginia have state recognition, but the Pamunkey are the first of 11 Virginia tribes to gain federal recognition.

Being from Virginia, I have visited the Pamunkey and have always been impressed with the way they make their livelihood from the river – in harmony with what their natural environment offers them. They operate a fish hatchery that “keeps fish in the river and food on the table,” to borrow words from Pamunkey member Carl Custalow. If you’re on your way to Kings Dominion, I encourage you to stop by and visit with this friendly nation.

Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown of the smallest and oldest documented tribe in Virginia. (By Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown of the smallest and oldest documented tribe in Virginia. (By Timothy C. Wright/For The Washington Post)

A woodland tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy, the Pamunkey have just over 200 enrolled members; about 36 members live on the 1,200-acre reservation, the rest throughout Virginia and the U.S. Still located on the banks of the Pamunkey River in King William County near Richmond, Va., the tribe has occupied this land since the Colonial Era in the 1600s. At that time, the tribe had about 1,000 members.

I would be remiss if I did not also mention this point of history: Virginia’s tribes have occupied the state since before the first settlers at Jamestown. They contributed greatly to the survival of the early settlers and continue to contribute to the strength of the state and the United States today. And that brings me to my next point. We have written before on our blog about how it is possible to be an “unrecognized tribe.” This is dumbfounding given that the indigenous people of this nation were here before all of us, but it is possible. The Pamunkey Tribe spent decades researching, documenting and working with federal authorities to meet the complex requirements of federal recognition. They are a good role model that shows other tribes how perseverance pays off.

There is more good news too. The Obama administration and Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior (DOI) and Indian Affairs have been working to streamline the federal recognition process and make it more transparent, timely and consistent without disrupting the integrity of decisions over the past 40 years. Their new federal recognition process is available on their website.

The Pamunkey Tribe will explore a range of opportunities for economic development. Six other Virginia tribes are seeking federal recognition too – the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond. I encourage all of you to learn about the tribes in your state, their contributions and how federal recognition can free up their economies to not only earn more, but also contribute more to your state and your region.

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