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Virginia tribes continue push for federal recognition

WASHINGTON - Virginia's congressional delegation remains divided as tribal leaders and representatives from eight tribes in the state gathered on Capitol Hill to push for passage of a bill which would grant them federal recognition.

The bill H.R. 5073, would recognized the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Mattaponi, the Upper Mattaponi, the Monacan, the Nansemond, the Pamunkey, and the Rappahannock, all recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia.

However, obstacles have been raised by some Virginia political leaders who fear gambling.

"Once federal recognition is granted, representatives of the tribes can be granted the authority to set up legalized gambling outlets in Virginia without approval of any Virginia state or local officials," said Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who also proposed a moratorium on the expansion of gaming.

Wolf recently wrote to Virginia newspapers warning that recognition by the federal government could lead to the immunity of tribes from state laws against casinos. He is calling on the tribes to accept a compromise which would grant them some federal aid if they give up their quest for recognition.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., also expressed concerns that federal recognition could lead to tribal gaming.

Tribal leaders say their efforts for federal recognition are about culture and pride and are in no way motivated by gambling. They say they want federal recognition so they can assure their citizens access to federal health and education programs, as well as the ability to repatriate the remains of their ancestors. They say it is ironic that in a state which openly practices and promotes gambling, some would use the issue to stop their efforts.

"We have no interest in casinos," said Chief Kenneth Branham of the Monacan Nation. "Recognition is not about gambling, its about restoring the Virginia Indians' rightful status in the history of Virginia."

The bill was introduced in July by Rep. James Moran, D-Va., who was approached by tribal representatives and asked to sponsor the bill. Moran says it is strange that a few of his collages have decided to oppose the bill for fear of Indian gaming, since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act specifically requires a state-tribal agreement before gaming can occur within the state. He said he believes that recognition is about justice and that the tribes of Virginia should receive the same rights as any tribe in the United States.

"The people in power, both in the government and the private interests in Virginia don't want gambling competition," said Moran. "Virginia sanctions gambling in many ways. We have the lottery, off-track betting, horse track betting, you name it. Virginia is a gambling state. I think there is a whole lot of hypocrisy here. If gambling is wrong then why is the government engaging in it"

James Gilmore, the governor of Virginia, also said he believes tribes should not receive federal recognition because it would sever the historic relationship between the tribes and the commonwealth. 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. Seven of the tribes who seek recognition were part of the Powhatan Confederacy and were party to a treaty with Virginia in 1677.

"We want the same rights that other Indians in our country have," said Chief Barry Bass of the Nansemond tribe. "We want our children to be eligible for the educational programs that other Indian children have access to, and we want our elders to be eligible for the health care they need. We feel this bill will provide a better future for the Indians of Virginia."

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.

"It is highly unlikely that this bill will be considered before the close of the session," Rep. Moran said. "But at least we get the issue out on the table for consideration."