Three years ago the Pamunkey Indian Tribe gained federal recognition. Now the tribe is considering opening a casino as a step toward financial independence. But the idea is not without controversy.
Back in 1744, six Indian nations were invited to send some of their sons to the College of William and Mary. The Pamunkey, though not a party to this treaty, keep a poster of the now-famous response in their schoolhouse on the reservation. Chief Robert Gray reads a part of the letter. "When they came back to us they were bad runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, unable to bear either the cold or hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer or kill an enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for hunters, warriors, nor counsellors, they were totally good for nothing," Gray reads with a chuckle.
It took 30 years for the nearly 400 Pamunkey Indians scattered throughout the country to gain the right to their own federally-recognized government. That makes them eligible for funding and services. But, Chief Gray says they'd prefer to find their own way.
The problem is the tribe has no money and no land to attract investors. That's why they're looking at a casinos. "Our primary goal is economic self-sufficiency," Gray says. "If it didn't have to be casinos, that would be great. But the federal government has carved out certain rules that allow us to do this because they see it as an economic venture that works and allows gain the capital to find other opportunities to diversify."
When the tribe sought recognition, its main opposition came from MGM, which owns National Harbor Casino on the Potomac in Maryland. But opposition has broadened since the tribe partnered with Tennessee-based Yarbrough Capital, which purchased a 600-acre property in rural New Kent County. That's located between Richmond and Williamsburg and is a potential site for the casino.
At a public hearing last month, the county hired a law firm specializing in tribal gaming to answer questions. Like other residents, Henry Dowdy went to the podium to express his concerns. "Other businesses that Pamunkey Indians want to run, fine. I just don't like the casino," Dowdy said then. "I don't think its good for the moral fabric of the county. It's certainly not in tune with my family values."
Other concerns included unwanted traffic and development in a community that wants to remain rural.
Chief Gray, who was not invited to the public hearing, says the land may not even be used for a casino. "That is just one possible location. We might use that location for other opportunities – housing, cultural resource, museum, medical facility. We have not made that decision yet."
Obtaining the legal trust needed to build a casino takes 8 to ten years. Tom Foley, one of the attorneys at the hearing, said the Department of Interior has been undergoing administrative changes and is looking at regulatory changes that could result in new hurdles for the Pamunkey and other tribes. "There's just a lot of uncertainty with the rules and regulations," Foley said afterward. "I’m guessing some of the changes will make the process slow down a bit more compared to the previous administration."
And there's one more thing. Just down the road from New Kent County is the WestRock paper mill, one of the state's largest ground water users. State officials are concerned about decreasing water levels in the Potomac Aquifer. They're not sure what authority they would have over the tribe's water use for a casino.
Chief Gray said he wants to work with the state but he may not have to. Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court turned down an appeal by California water agencies in a landmark lawsuit. In that case, two tribes asserted rights to groundwater beneath the tribe's reservation and won.
***Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed the historic document read by Chief Gray to his tribe. In fact, it was from a speech by the leader of the Onondaga tribe, who spoke on behalf of six nations at the 1744 treaty of Lancaster in Pennsylvania. The Pamunkey were not signatories nor attended this treaty negotiation.