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Virginia Indians have support for another federal recognition bill

AMHERST COUNTY, Va. - Six Virginia Indian tribes will seek federal recognition once again through legislation, having maintained support from one legislator who plans to re-introduce such a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rep. James P. Moran, D-Va., plans to introduce a bill that will grant the tribes - the Nansemond, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Rappahannock and Upper Mattaponi, along with the Monacan Indian Nation - federal recognition as the 110th session of Congress gets under way, said Moran's press secretary, Austin Durrer.

''It's a new Congress, a new Democratic majority, and we're hopeful that that's going to bring new opportunities for Virginia's Native Americans to receive their long-awaited recognition,'' Durrer said. ''The international spotlight is going to be on Jamestown this summer with the 400th anniversary. We're hopeful that the fact that so many people will be focusing on the founding of our country and the role that Virginia's Native Americans played in helping the settlers survive the harsh conditions of the new world will bring added impetus to get the bill passed.''

For the past six years, the tribes have come close to gaining that recognition as they've sought approval in time for America's 400th commemoration of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America. With the majority of its events scheduled to begin in the summer, the descendants of the Indian nations - the people who helped the first English settlers survive - continue to wait.

''Rep. Jim Moran in the House told us he will once again introduce our bill,'' said Monacan Nation Chief Kenneth Branham. ''We're continuing to talk with Sen. John Warner, and we're hoping to contact Sen. Jim Webb in the near future.''

Warner supported the tribes' effort in the last session by co-sponsoring a bill with former Sen. George Allen, R-Va., who introduced the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2005. Allen lost his bid for re-election in November to Webb, a Democrat.

With Allen's defeat, the tribes lost one point of contact in the Senate but are hopeful for support from Webb, Branham said. However, Webb's victory gave Congress a Democratic majority, which some say means added support and movement of the Virginia tribes' bill.

During the last two congressional sessions, Virginia Indians have worked to educate legislators and the public about their history, agreeing to participate in the commemoration of Jamestown's founding as well as assisting with organizing events. Some have said they want to receive federal recognition, especially before people from all over the world, including England's Queen Elizabeth II, visit Jamestown and Virginia. The tribes moved closer to that goal in 2003, when the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs supported the bill and approved sending it to the Senate for a full vote.

But the House companion bill remained stalled in its Resources Committee during that session. In the last session, the bill received no action by the House, even though the SCIA held a hearing on the bill in June 2006.

With the new House Resources Chairman Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., the Virginia tribes' bill and many others may move forward.

''The chairman has the authority to determine which bills have hearings and which bills receive votes in the committee,'' said Brent Robinson, a legislative assistant to Rep. Jo Ann Davis, who co-sponsored the Virginia tribes' federal recognition bill in 2005.

Some of the federal recognition bills' critics have said the legislation ''sidesteps'' the BIA's federal recognition process. However, Branham said the chiefs of Virginia's eight state-recognized tribes talked with the BIA years ago as they began the process of seeking federal recognition and were told that the process was lengthy and backlogged, and they were advised to seek other methods for establishing federal recognition that may be approved more quickly.

Other challengers to the bills have opposed Virginia tribes' federal recognition because of Indian gaming issues. However, all six tribes have expressed no interest in gaming. The bills introduced included a provision noting the tribes would not utilize the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. The six Virginia tribes, which are set up as nonprofit organizations, have been allowed under Virginia law to operate bingo games for years, but none of the tribes has pursued bingo as a means of generating revenue.

''Here it is in 2007, and the Virginia Indians are still not recognized,'' Branham said. ''This would be an embarrassment to this country and the state of Virginia if the tribes are not federally recognized, especially since this is a country that prides itself on protecting human rights.''