A classic fight for federal recognition is on. Amid recent international attention on the commemoration of the founding of Jamestown, local tribes strategically participated in what was hailed as ''America's 400th birthday.'' Strategic because the six Virginia tribes seeking federal recognition hoped to take advantage of the spotlight shining on their people and histories.
It turns out Jamestown as a celebration did not exactly mark a new chapter in the centuries-old relationship between the United States, England and the Native inhabitants of the Chesapeake region. Instead, the visiting monarch overshadowed news that the U.S. House of Representatives approved two long-stalled bills to recognize as sovereign entities the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and the Virginia-based Chickahominy, Eastern Division Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond tribes.
Although a major accomplishment for the tribes, it was no mistake these House approvals occurred during the nation's carefully planned upswell of pride over the Jamestown founding. It had to be done then, lest the House and Virginia embarrass themselves at their own party. But now, the cameras are gone and the feel-good moment has passed.
The Virginia Senate debate has no immediate start date, with reports that the commonwealth's two senators are taking their time getting up to speed on the bill's language and implications. Among the concerns is a prohibition of gaming, a precedent in federal recognition legislation. Sovereignty at a cost is water under the bridge, each Virginia tribe reiterating their disinterest in gaming. ''If we wanted to game, we wouldn't have had to resort to bake sales and carwashes to pay for our lobbyist,'' said Stephen Adkins, Chickahominy tribal chief, referring to earlier offers by lobbyists to help the tribe with their quest.
Asking for sovereignty is awkward from a public relations standpoint and as a tribal government policy. Indian nations can exist without federal assistance to provide tribal members with practical realities of self-sufficiency - economic control, housing, health care and education. Many do. But for some, like the Virginia tribes and Lumbees of North Carolina, it is about righting historical wrongs and simple recognition of their existence as distinct cultures. Restoring pride does not require federal legislation. But these tribal people, whose ancestors witnessed the birth of slavery and its terrible legacy of institutionalized racism, continue to live as Indians despite the deep psychological impact of the American eugenics movement. Simply being able to check ''Indian,'' and not ''black'' or ''white,'' on a box is a victory.
The place of these tribes in pre-colonial America is undeniable; that they stand today to seek recognition is a feat worthy of praise. The next step for these tribes is to seek support beyond their communities and to learn how effective an instrument survival can be.