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Virginia tribes begin a quest for federal recognition

WASHINGTON - A bill introduced in Congress would grant federal recognition to eight tribes in Virginia.

However, concerns have been raised by some about the possibilities of tribal gaming and whether it is appropriate for Congress to acknowledge tribes through legislation.

The Commonwealth of Virginia recognizes eight tribes: the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Mattaponi, the Upper Mattaponi, the Monacan, the Nansemond, the Pamunkey, and the Rappahannock.

The Mattaponi and the Pamunkey are the only tribes in Virginia with official reservations, the oldest in the country. They also have treaties with Virginia which predate the formation of the United States.

Today's Virginia tribes are comprised of the descendants of the first Indian people to meet English colonists. In was here in 1609 that Jamestown was settled, the first in a long history of interactions between Indians and Europeans. It is the home of Pocahontas and Powhatan and the beginning of the end for much of what used to be in North America.

However, some of what used to be, remains. Approximately 75 members of the Mattaponi Tribe live on land that stretches along the banks of the Mattaponi River, on a reservation that dates to 1658. In 1646, the Mattaponi began paying tribute to the Commonwealth, a custom which continues today when, at Thanksgiving, the tribe presents a small token of game or fish to the governor of Virginia.

The Rappahonnock Tribe lives on lands initially established as a reservation under treaty in 1677, but later lost as official reservation land in the 1700s. However, they maintain a tribal government and headquarters. Today, the tribe owns 21 acres of land on which it is building a three-phase cultural complex.

The Pamunkey, the most powerful of the tribes of the great Powhatan Confederacy, which at one time consisted of more than 30 tribes and some 10,000 people, also maintain a reservation with approximately 100 tribal residents.

Several Virginia tribes are listed on the BIA's list of petitioners seeking federal recognition, including the United Rappahannock Tribe Inc., the Upper Mattaponi Tribe Inc., the Ani-Stohini/Unami Nation (not recognized by Virginia), Mattaponi Tribe, Monacan Indian Tribe Inc. and the Chickahominy Indian Tribe. To date, no Virginia tribe has been recognized the by federal government.

Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., introduced H.R. 5073, the bill which seeks to recognize Virginia's tribes, in July.

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"It only seems right," said Mary Wade, a member of the Monacan Tribe and secretary of the Virginia Council on Indians. "Federal recognition would make it easier for tribes in Virginia to apply for grants and services from the BIA and other federal agencies."

While hope is being expressed by some tribal members, some members of Congress are not as excited about the idea. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., and Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., both expressed their concerns over the bill.

"The people of Virginia don't want gambling," said Rosanne Dupras, press secretary for Rep. Wolf. Dupras said that while Rep. Wolf supports the tribes of Virginia, he opposes the bill because it may lead to tribally-run casinos.

Senator Warner has also expressed similar concerns.

Many in Congress also take issue with tribes gaining federal recognition through legislation.

Some, like Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., believe that following an improved administrative process should be the preferred path for federal acknowledgment.

The Branch of Acknowledgment and Research in the Department of Interior is charged with reviewing and evaluating petitions for acknowledgment, and providing reports and recommendations to the assistant secretary for Indian affairs and the secretary of Interior for final determination.

This process has come under fire over the past several years by those applying for recognition, members of Congress, and tribes already recognized by the federal government.

Campbell's bill, S. 611, the Indian Federal Recognition Administrative Procedures Act, would replace the current criteria and standards for acknowledgment with new procedures and guidelines.

Rep. Moran's bill should spark new debate about the issue of federal recognition, but may not survive the obstacles of gaming and accepted recognition procedure. The bill has been referred to the House Committee on Resources, where an official request for comment has been forward by the Committee to the Department of Interior.