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Six Indian Tribes Fight for Recognition

Virginia’s Native Americans Are Recognized by the State, but Not Washington

The peace treaties forged between Virginia’s Indian tribes and English settlers in the 17th century were so influential that tribal members in buckskin and feathers still deliver wild game and fish to the governor’s mansion in Richmond each Thanksgiving.

But while their relationship with the state government spans four centuries, Virginia’s Native American tribes have never earned similar recognition from the federal government.

Six of the state’s tribes — the Chickahominy, Chickahominy Indian Tribe Eastern Division, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond — hope that after a decade of lobbying, Congress will pass legislation this year granting the tribe’s federal recognition.

“There are about 550 federally recognized tribes in this country. None are in Virginia,” Upper Mattaponi Tribe Chief Ken Adams said, pausing to emphasize that point. “We’re looking for equality.”

Recognized tribes, which include such well-known names as the Navajo, Sioux and Cherokee, receive federal benefits, expanded Medicare and Medicaid coverage, and are able to compete for federal grants.

Tribes are legally able to establish membership requirements and their own governing system, enforce laws and collect taxes.

Federal recognition also has a symbolic meaning to the 2,500 Virginia tribal members whose ties to the commonwealth predate the state’s founding in 1607.

“For a lot of us it’s a matter of pride that we’re put on the same level as other tribes in the country,” said Wayne Adkins, a member of the Chickahominy tribe and president of the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, the political arm for the state’s tribes.

VITAL hired Elizabeth Walker in 1999 as its chief lobbyist. The Virginia native, whose father served alongside Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) in the state assembly, carried VITAL with her from McGuireWoods to Alcalde & Fay, where she worked from 2001 to 2002.

Walker now represents the Virginia tribes at her solo shop, Walker Law.

The tribes “don’t have a fighting chance if they don’t have somebody,” she said. “Indian issues are underrepresented.”

The House passed the recognition bill last year, and Walker is gunning for the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to schedule a markup before the August recess.

With bill sponsor Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) retiring at the end of this Congress, tribal members are concerned they will lose support on Capitol Hill.

Get Thee to the BIA

When the tribes began lobbying Congress in the late 1990s, Members, including then-Indian Affairs Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), wanted tribes to go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs to earn recognition. The scandal of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who had a collection of high-paying Indian clients, also put a crimp on Native American issues on Capitol Hill.

Tribes are typically recognized through the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a lengthy process that can take more than a decade to complete. A tribe must detail its membership criteria, provide a chronicle of its cultural and political history and be in continual existence since 1900.

Compiling all the necessary documents takes an average of eight years. After they’re submitted, the BIA’s review process lasts at least another two. As they’ve lobbied the Hill, all six tribes on the bill have also gone through the BIA petition process.

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