After more than 400 years, six Native American tribes have finally gotten federal recognition.
It opens doors for countless funding opportunities, but maybe most of all, it creates the possibility of writing a more accurate version of this country’s history.
In every Congress, for the last 18 years, a bill’s been introduced to federally recognize a half-dozen Virginia tribes. They trace their ancestry in this land back more than 10,000 years. But in every Congress, the bill has died.
And then, earlier this year, Virginia’s senior senator, Mark Warner, stood on the floor of the Senate. “Occasionally we get things right,” said Warner. “And boy oh boy this is a day where we get things right on a civil rights basis, on a moral basis, on a fairness basis.”
Seated above Warner, in the balcony of the Senate, were the chiefs of the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahanock, the Nansemond, and the Monacan Indian Nation — six tribes that helped the first European immigrants survive.
Karenne Wood is the director of Virginia Indian Programs at the Virginia Humanities. She’s also a Monacan from central Virginia. “We’ve been presented as obstacles to civilization, which is sad and offensive and exclusionary,” says Wood. “And now we’re getting to a point where native perspectives are welcomed in telling of story and that’s exciting. I felt my ancestors were never asked to speak. I’m one of the first people in this generation who’s being included.”
That corruption of history is part of why it took 400 years for these tribes to gain federal recognition. After the Civil War, as courthouses burned across the south, Indian records were destroyed. Records that the government requires for tribes to receive federal recognition. What’s more, Virginia white supremacists passed the Racial Integrity Act in 1924, which eliminated “Indian” as a race in the US Census, labeling them as “colored” instead. Again, stripping them of any chance at federal recognition.
“Many of them left the state so that they could marry as Indian, or wouldn’t be drafted into colored regiments,” says Wood. “It was a really pejorative time when our people felt very persecuted by their neighbors and by the state. And so they — we say we hunkered down, that’s the term we use, and we withdrew to ourselves, and maybe that’s what saved us from assimilating into the general population.”
There are 566 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. That recognition gives them access to funding through the Department of the Interior. The funding is competitive and tribes have to apply and make a case for it, but it beats relying on bake sales and pow-wows to support their tribal centers, many of which are in rural areas.
“Initially what we would like to do with any funds that we can get from the federal government is to update and upgrade our tribal facility and the electronics in the building, just so that we can begin to process and apply for moneys to provide healthcare and educational grants to our citizens,” says Frank Adams, the chief of the Upper Mattaponi.
Monacan Chief Dean Branham says he’s working with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. to identify ancestral remains and artifacts to reunite them with the tribe. But, he says, the deep and painful irony of seeking recognition from a government that tried to eliminate you, hasn’t escaped him.
“To me, it’s kind of owed to us, for them to finally say, hey, you people have been here all these years and I’ll never know why it took so long, I don’t think anyone will, but they did the right thing and I think justice was done by doing what they did and recognizing us, which it should’ve been done a long time ago, it shouldn’t have took 18 years,” says Branham.
Back on the Senate floor, Senator Warner thanked the tribes for their patience and perseverance. And the bill, passed unanimously. But it had one more hurdle, says Wood.
“The Republican Congress had passed our bill, but that it was now in Trump’s hands to decide whether to sign it,” says Wood. “So all of the future to the people that I love were actually in the hands of a man who hasn’t been very friendly to Indians, and he signed the legislation.”
“What was your reaction?” I asked.
“He did something right,” says Wood. “Honestly that was it.”