Virginia Lawmakers Take on the Fight of the Pamunkey Tribe

Apr 20, 2015

Credit Smithsonian Institute #888

Virginia’s Pamunkey  Tribe was dealt a setback in its effort to gain federal recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Everyone knows Pocahontas, but do you know what tribe she hails from? Virginia’s Pamunkey Indians claim her as an ancestor. While Pocahontas and the Pamunkey have roots that predate the nation’s founding, the tribe isn’t recognized by the federal government because their records were destroyed early last century because a Virginia policy declared only two races: white and black.

“This is an outrageous injustice. These are the Indian tribes that enabled the original English settlers to survive.”

That’s former Virginia Congressman Jim Moran who has advocated for federal recognition of the Pamunkey for nearly two decades. Last week the Bureau of Indian Affairs was supposed to decide on the tribe’s status, but under pressure from critics they moved the deadline.

A group of five female lawmakers asked the bureau to look into claims of gender discrimination in the tribe, while members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Virginia Democrat Bobby Scott, are asking the bureau to look into other allegations.  

“The allegation is that some of the tribes may have racially discriminatory policies and it would be inappropriate to get them federal recognition. And if it's not true then it's just not true, but it deserves the allegations, deserves reveal.”  

Then there are casinos. MGM officials fear federal recognition could bring gambling to southern Virginia, which could imperil their casino venture in Maryland. Virginia Republican Morgan Griffith says MGM shouldn’t have any say.   

“I don't know who it is, I don't know if he is a Democrat or Republican, I just read that there's a billionaire casino. Wait a minute, wait a minute - does he live in Virginia? And why is he opposed to it?  Well, he's opposed to it because he doesn't want competition. That is not why you should make a decision on whether the tribe ought to be recognized or not.”

Professor Gregory Smithers, an expert on native Americans at Virginia Commonwealth University says it’s difficult to say how many Virginians can trace their ancestry back to the tribe:

“From the arrival of Europeans  in the 17th century there was inter-marriage between European men and native Americans all up and down the Eastern seaboard.  The Pamunkey were no different.”

There was also inter-marriage with freed or escaped slaves, and then - in the early 20th century - Virginia law made it impossible for many to claim native status.

“If you have one drop of black blood, you’re not native American, you’re not Pamunkey.  You’re not Notoway.  You’re African-American, and therefore you cease to exist as a Pamunkey.”

Modern-day tribal leaders claim about 200 members, but if the federal government were to recognize the Pamunkeys, more might come forward.  

“The Pamunkey do claim Pocahontas as one of their descendants, and there are many Virginians who claim a connection to Pocahontas and the Powhatan at the time of first contact with the English.”

The Pamunkeys signed a treaty with the British in 1658, giving them a reservation in Virginia, but much of their land was taken away in subsequent centuries. The Bureau of Indian Affairs moved its deadline for a ruling until the end of July.