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Virginia tribes one step closer to federal recognition

WASHINGTON - Virginia's Indians moved a bit closer to gaining federal recognition in the past week, but they still have a ways to go before achieving the recognition they've so long been denied.

The U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee voted Oct. 29 in favor of Senate Bill 1423, introduced by Sen. George Allen, R-Va., which would give Virginia's state-recognized tribes federal recognition. Six of the eight state-recognized tribes - the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Nansemond, the Chickahominy, the Monacan and the Eastern Chickahominy - have sought recognition under the bill. The other two state-recognized tribes, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian tribes are seeking federal recognition through the BIA.

"It's been reported out of the committee and is pending on the floor," said Paul Moorehead, Republican staff director and chief counsel for Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. "The next step is for a report to accompany the bill to be completed and filed. This will explain its provisions, the history of the bill and the history of the tribes. That will be filed in the days and weeks ahead."

Once the report is filed, Sen. Allen will then ask the Senate take the bill and pass it.

"It is uncertain if the bill will be taken up by the Senate on its calendar by the end of the year," Moorehead said. "In the timelines of Senate business, there may not be enough time."

Sen. Allen has been hard at work on the bill he introduced it July 17, said Mike Waldron, Allen's spokesman.

"We are looking to move it to the Senate floor as quickly as possible," Waldron said. "The vote last week was historic. It's the first step to righting a historic wrong committed against Virginia Indians."

If the bill isn't acted on this year, there's another year to act on it before Congress adjourns at the end of 2004, Waldron said.

Historically, Virginia's tribes were among the first Native people to encounter the Europeans. Their treaties, for the most part, were made with England - before the United States became a nation. Gradually, most of the Indian reservations existing within the state were terminated, and the Indians remaining, mostly Sioux, Iroquois and Algonquin speakers, from those nations were forced into assimilation or into segregated communities.

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The tribes have sought federal recognition to prepare for their future, and they'd like access to housing, health and education benefits that are available to many federally recognized tribes.

Most Virginia Indians, including those now seeking federal recognition through the Senate bill, continue to live and practice their culture in small communities near their original homelands. During the early 1900s through the 1960s, many of the state's Indians were under assault and were forced to change their racial designation from Indian to colored since the state of Virginia's Vital Statistics Office declared there were only two races - white and colored.

Chief Ken Adams of the Upper Mattaponi has declared the recent support from the Senate Indian Affairs Committee "a huge milestone."

"Even though we have had hearings on the bill in the past, there was never a vote of any kind prior to this," Adams said. "This vote now moves the bill closer to the Senate."

The bill that would grant Virginia's Indians federal recognition still has its opposition and has yet to be taken up by the U.S. House of Representatives. It must go through the appropriate House committee, the House Resources Committee, before the House could vote on it.

"We're hoping they'll make a decision on that," Adams said. "It's time for them to step up to the plate as far as I'm concerned."

Critics such as Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-Va., remain opposed to the bill because it doesn't prohibit casinos. Other opponents view the bill as a means for the Virginia tribes to bypass the BIA approval.

Although six of the state's tribes have sought federal recognition through legislation instead of approval from the BIA, which has been said is the more objective route, seeking recognition through legislation is one of three methods Indian tribes can gain federal recognition, Moorehead said.

"The preferred method is to go through the BIA," he said.

Tribes can also seek federal recognition through a court order, if there have been mitigating factors. But Moorehead said, the legislative route is open to those who seek it, and he doesn't expect the Virginia tribes' legislation to create a deluge of requests for federal recognition in this manner. Before Virginia's tribes, Indians have sought recognition outside of the BIA - the Lumbee Indians of North Carolina, for example, sought recognition through legislation in 1956, he said. Congress approved the bill, recognizing the Lumbee as Indians, but Congress denied the tribe status as a federally recognized tribe.