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Virginia tribes spent a busy 2007 working on federal recognition

KING WILLIAM COUNTY, Va. - Gaining federal recognition may seem an elusive, if not trying, measure for Virginia Indians.

Six of the state's eight tribes have spent years working with members of Congress to receive federal recognition through legislation, and 2007 was no different.

But while the tribes worked closely with Rep. James P. Moran, who co-sponsored and wrote the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, they gained the support of the House of Representatives, which approved the bill unanimously in May.

Action in the House, though, came shortly before the kickoff of Jamestown 2007, a series of events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of the first permanent English settlement in North America.

While many of the tribes believed the bill would move through the U.S. Senate shortly after the House approval, it didn't. However, in October the tribes gained support from Sen. Jim Webb, providing the Senate backing they needed.

''I'm disappointed, like a lot of people, about the federal recognition not being approved yet, and I feel we were used,'' said Karenne Wood, Monacan.

When the House approved the bill the week before the Jamestown 2007 events were to begin, but the Senate failed to act on the bill, the actions ''looked unattractive,'' Wood said.

''It looks like it was designed to look good and not to accomplish anything,'' she said. ''We had higher aspirations for the U.S. government than they actually provided for us. That is not new in American Indian history.''

Virginia's eight tribes became a centerpiece for a series of events, enabling the state's Indians, whose ancestors helped the English survive at Jamestown, to tell their stories and share their culture with the public. The tribes also had the opportunity to meet England's Queen Elizabeth II.

The six tribes seeking federal recognition - Chickahominy, Chickahominy - Eastern Division, Rappahannock, Monacan, Upper Mattaponi and Nansemond - began pushing the legislation eight years ago.

Still, Chief Gene B. Adkins of the Chickahominy - Eastern Division said overall this year he was pleased that the recognition bill passed in the House. For years, the House took no action on the tribes' bill, but this year representatives did.

''I've been disappointed the Senate hasn't acted on it yet,'' Adkins said. ''But now that Sen. Webb has taken up the bill, we're hopeful he'll be able to do something once next year comes.''

''Of course, we don't just want movement,'' Adkins continued. ''We want the bill to pass.''

Chief Ken Adams of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribes said the tribes had wanted to receive federal recognition before the Jamestown 2007 events started; and at hearings several years ago, the BIA was asked if it could guarantee the tribes would have federal recognition by that time.

''But they said they couldn't,'' Adams said.

The tribes began having problems in 2006 when Sen. John Warner began bringing up the gaming issue, he said.

''Sen. Warner had not done that in 2002 or at prior hearings,'' Adams said. ''Then, the tribes had already changed the language in the bill that would prevent gaming.''

Despite the concerns about gaming and the tribes' agreement for a bill that would prevent them from using the Indian Gaming Act, the House approved the bill in May.

''I'm still hopeful,'' Adams said. ''We did everything that was asked of us - we danced for the queen and we were on stage with the president of the United States - now we seek just reward.''

The issues over the tribes' bill and it not being passed this year has left Chief Kenneth Branham of the Monacan Indian Nation with mixed feelings, he said.

''The bill went through the House in May, and when that took place, we were optimistic it would go through the Senate,'' he said. ''But a few months later, we realized it wasn't going to happen.''

Despite the delay in the Senate, Branham said Webb's support should help move the bill.

''With Sen. Webb's support and with him being from Virginia, I think he's a man who will step forward and put some effort into getting this bill through the Senate,'' said Branham, who added that in the past, it appeared no one put effort into getting Senate approval.

With the spotlight on Virginia Indians in 2007, some said they were glad to have opportunities to tell their stories during the commemoration of Jamestown.

''The spotlight enabled us to tell our own story and be able to participate in designing the events for the commemoration,'' Wood said.

In many ways, the tribes found participation in all of the Jamestown 2007 events and projects rewarding.

''We were able to tell our stories, which is something we've always wanted to do,'' Adkins said. ''It helped to raise the profile of the tribes. There's a lot more awareness of who the tribes are, and people know more about the tribes now than they did at the beginning of the year.''

Adams, too, agreed the Jamestown events provided opportunities the tribes had never had - the tribes went to England, worshipped in the church where Pocahontas was buried, and established relationships in England that Adams calls ''priceless.'' The Virginia tribes were also able to make connections within their own communities that brought them closer together, he said.

The work for Jamestown 2007 events, though, began a year earlier with the tribes' visit to England, Branham said.

''Hopefully, next year, we can concentrate on the Senate and get the federal recognition bill passed,'' Branham said. ''I, for one, am glad the Jamestown 2007 events have passed. We had representatives in about 90 percent of the events.''