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Tribes and advocates applaud Northam's executive order

Governor Ralph Northam issued the executive order earlier this week.
Jahd Khalil / RADIO IQ

For the first time since before 1607, federally-recognized tribes in Virginia now have a seat at the table and a say in state-permitted projects that affect their environmental, cultural and historic resources.

The historic executive order by Governor Ralph Northam is also a first in the country. It comes after hundreds of years of neglect and erasure of Indigenous People in Virginia. It'll restore some of their power over lands that were once theirs.

“It’s been quite a revolution to see and be a part of as I grew up in a very racist Virginia," says Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock Tribe. "And it gives us free, prior and informed consent is what the legal term is.”

That legal term is seen by Indigenous people around the world as a human rights standard for self-determination and self-governance. It’s part of the United Nations 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and has been incorporated into law by some countries, just not yet in the U.S.

Greg Werkheiser of Cultural Heritage Partners is an attorney for six of the tribes.

“No other state has introduced this concept before Virginia," explains Werkheiser. "And this is a step in the right direction towards recognizing the sovereignty of the Tribes that are here.”

Federally-recognized Tribes have been working on a Sovereignty Accord. Chief Richardson said consent is the most important element to them.

She said the destruction of ancestral remains belonging to the Nansemond Tribe a few years ago by a developer would never have happened if their Tribe had been at the table with state authorities. And the same for the Monacan Tribe now fighting plans to build a water pump station on top of the Tribe’s historic capital, Rassawek.

“And we walk on history every day and we don’t know it,”Richardson says.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.