Opinion | Federal Recognition

Cedric Sunray: BIA played role in tribe's racist marriage policy

The Pamunkey Tribe and the Mattaponi Tribe presented an annual tribute to the state of Virginia on Wednesday, a tradition that dates back to 1677. Photo from Gov. Terry McAuliffe / Facebook

Cedric Sunray blames the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the existence of racist policies like a defunct marriage law within the Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia:
The Pamunkey Tribe has recently come under fire by the Congressional Black Caucus for, until very recently, their constitutional prohibition of intermarriage with black people. When placed in a contemporary context, the small tribe (enrolled population of just over 200) would be the poster child for antiquated notions at best, and legislated racism at worst. The problem with this statement is that the Pamunkey’s historical and contemporary realities are fueled by a highly complex matrix of racial prejudice directed towards them—not only in social and educational form, but through the massive bureaucracy and class distinction maker known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Much of the contemporary Pamunkey reality has been forcefully created via pressures, intentional or not, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their enforcement arm known as the Office of Federal Acknowledgement. It should be further stated that the Pamunkey have always been and will always be an Indian tribe. They have endured hundreds of years of colonizing contact, and have still stood with pride in who they are. They should never have had to play this game. This is no different in terms of the reality of the other Virginia tribes with whom our tribe has held a multigenerational attachment via being Indian boarding school classmates. These tribes include the Upper Mattaponi, Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Indians Eastern Division, Rappahannock and Monacan.

If Indian tribes are to be denied federal recognition or have their federal recognition rescinded on the basis of racism towards black people, then hundreds of tribes would be immediately stricken from the federal register. Racism towards people of many racial backgrounds is highly pronounced in many areas of Indian country. Recent disenrollment attempts by tribes such as the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Nooksack in Washington State of tribal members from black and Filipino ancestry respectively, are glaring examples of the Indian world’s adoption of mainstream racial attitudes for social and political purposes. Unlike the Cherokee and Nooksack, who are federally recognized tribes with political protections that unethically allow such actions, historic “non-federal” tribes find themselves in unique and highly problematic scenarios when issues of race are contested within their tribal communities, and such contestations become the make or break factors towards public opinion, legal status, and social standing.

Get the Story:
Cedric Sunray: Pamunkey Pride and Prejudice: How the Feds Mandated Racism (Indian Country Today 2/17)

Federal Register Notice:
Proposed Finding for Federal Acknowledgment of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe (January 23, 2014)

Related Stories:
Cedric Sunray: Tribes turn blind eye to racism in enrollment (2/16)
Cedric Sunray: Indian Country influenced by Old South attitudes (2/11)
African-American lawmakers seek probe into Pamunkey Tribe (11/28)
African-American lawmakers accuse Pamunkey Tribe of racism (10/01)

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