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Virginia Tribes Renew Fight for Federal Recognition: Six of 11 of their Members of Congress Give Support

WASHINGTON - After gaining further support from their Congressional delegation, six of the eight tribes of Virginia are again in the hunt for federal recognition through Congressional legislation.

Reps. Jim Moran, D-Va., and Jo Ann Davis, R-Va., along with four other members of Congress from Virginia, introduced a bill to grant federal acknowledgment to six of the tribes present in Virginia when Jamestown was first settled in 1607. Looking to gain the same level of respect as other tribes, tribal officials say they hope that federal recognition will bring new opportunities to their people. Included in the recognition bill are the Chickahominy Tribe, the Chickahominy Tribe-Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Nansemond Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe and the Monacan Nation.

"All of our tribes have already been granted state recognition," said Chief Barry Bass of the Nansemond Tribe. "Federal legislation is the next logical step in preserving our culture and of honoring the legal rights afforded us in treaties signed by this country's first governments."

The Commonwealth of Virginia recognizes eight tribes, the six seeking federal recognition and the Mattaponi and the Pamunkey. Only the Mattaponi and Pamunkey have official reservations, the oldest in the country. They also have treaties with Virginia that predate the formation of the United States. While a part of a bill introduced last year, both have decided to continue seeking recognition through traditional routes though they support the other tribes' efforts.

Approximately seventy-five members of the Mattaponi Tribe now live on land that stretches along the banks of the Mattaponi River, on a reservation that dates back to 1658. In 1646, the Mattaponi began paying tribute to the Commonwealth, a custom that continues today when at Thanksgiving the tribe presents a small token of game or fish to the governor of Virginia.

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 maintains a reservation with approximately 100 tribal residents.

The Rappahannock Tribe now lives on lands initially established as a reservation under treaty in 1677, but lost as official reservation land in the 1700s. However, they still maintain a tribal government and headquarters. Today, the tribe owns 21 acres of land on which it has initiated a construction project to erect a three-phase cultural complex.

While hope is being expressed by 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 concerns over the idea of federal recognition.

Last year Rosanne Dupras, press secretary for Rep. Wolf, said that while he supports the tribes of Virginia, he opposes such legislation because it may lead to tribally run casinos. Sen. Warner expressed similar concerns.

In 1999, the Virginia Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution favoring federal recognition of the tribes and urged Congress to enact legislation to accomplish that goal. The tribes say that what is most important to them is the ability to apply for education grants and receive better health care.

Many in Congress have taken issue with tribes gaining federal recognition through legislation. Some, like Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., said they believe that following an improved administrative process should be the preferred path for federal acknowledgment.

Currently 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.

The bill, known as the Thomasina E. Jordan Recognition Act of 2001, is co-sponsored by Virginia Republicans Tom Davis and Edward Schrock and Democrats Bobby and Rick Boucher.

"We feel very positive about the outlook," said Monacan Mary Wade. "Having six of the 11 Virginia congressional leaders speaks volumes."