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Bill to recognize Virginia tribes introduced in the House

WASHINGTON - Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., has reintroduced a bill that will, if passed, grant six Virginia Indian tribes federal recognition.

Moran, who authored the bill, has worked with Virginia's Indian tribes for years in creating the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Recognition Act.

The bill would grant federal recognition to the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Nansemond tribes, and the Monacan Indian Nation.

Passage of the federal recognition act ''would close a sad chapter in our nation's history by granting the Virginia tribes the same rights afforded to the other 562 officially recognized Native American tribes in the U.S.,'' Moran said.

The late Thomasina E. Jordan, for whom the bill is named, worked with Virginia Indian tribes in their effort to seek federal recognition. Jordan, a Wampanoag, served on the Virginia Council of Indians from 1994 to her death in 1999 and spoke at hearings in support of the Virginia tribes' federal recognition.

''Thomasina Jordan came and visited me the day before she passed away,'' Moran said. ''It [Virginia tribes' federal recognition] meant a lot to her, and I need to do everything I can to get the bill passed.''

The bill was introduced March 1 and has been sent to the House Committee on Natural Resources. The original co-sponsors include Reps. Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Jo Ann Davis of Virginia, Tom Davis of Virginia, Dale Kildee of Michigan, Frank Pallone of New Jersey, Nick Rahall of West Virginia and Bobby Scott of Virginia.

After working with Virginia Indians for years, Moran said he finds the Virginia Indian story compelling and that approving their federal recognition is important as the country begins its commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement.

''Driven off their land, having survived a 'paper genocide' at the hands of state officials in the 1920s, bent on erasing records of their heritage, the Virginia tribes continue to be denied their rights as Native Americans,'' Moran said. ''This legislation is a part of the healing process, finally closing a painful chapter in our nation's history.''

For Virginia Indians, their very existence demonstrates their perseverance. The tribes also endured the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, enforced by Virginia's then-vital records registrar, Walter Plecker. Plecker changed the Indians' vital records in what Moran describes as an ''Orwellian fashion,'' labeling all nonwhites as ''colored.''

''To call oneself a 'Native American' in Virginia was to risk a jail sentence of up to one year,'' Moran said. ''Married couples were denied marriage certificates or even unable to obtain the release of their newborn child from a hospital until they changed their ethnicity on the state record to read 'colored,' not 'Native American.'''

Even after school integration began in Virginia, many districts provided no transportation for Indians to public schools, Moran said.

''Here we are 400 years later, and we haven't even recognized them,'' Moran said, noting that the Virginia tribes helped the English settlers survive at Jamestown during the first few winters.

''In retrospect, the Indians would have been better off to have sunk the ship when they saw it. But they were nice. They are good people.''

Because opponents to the tribes' federal recognition have argued that the bill would grant gaming rights, Moran said the bill has been written as giving the state of Virginia ''clear authority to bar any gaming activities not presently permitted in Virginia.'' Virginia tribal leaders have said they oppose gaming and have no plans to operate gaming facilities.

''As a nonprofit organization, they are currently able to hold bingo games to raise money, but have chosen not to do so,'' Moran said.

Chief Kenneth Branham of the Monacan Indian Nation said the tribes were expecting the bill to be introduced in March.

''We hope that the committee will put the bill in position to go to the House for a full vote,'' Branham said.

Other Virginia Indian leaders want to see legislators take action on the bill this year.

''My hope with this bill being introduced with the six tribes seeking federal recognition is that we will see some movement,'' said Chief Gene Adkins of the Eastern Chickahominy Tribe. ''It's the best thing that's happened since we have been looking for federal recognition. I'm excited about the bill and I'm hoping to see some action on it in the House and Senate.''

With the international spotlight being on the United States during the commemoration of the Jamestown settlement this year, Moran said that focus makes the Virginia tribes' federal recognition effort even more important.

''How will it look if, after 400 years, those Native Americans who greeted the first settlers to the New World are still being ignored by their country,'' Moran said. ''We have a historic opportunity to right an injustice that for too long has gone unnoticed. It's past time that we officially recognize them for their historic contributions to this country.''