Virginia tribes hindered by racist policies created by one man

Historic photo of Mattaponi students at the original Sharon Indian School in Virginia. Photo from Upper Mattaponi Tribe

Virginia's tribes welcomed the first European settlers at Jamestown. They signed some of the first treaties with foreign nations. And some reside on reservations that were set aside as far back as the 1600s.

Yet they all lack federal recognition. Part of that's due to the racist legacy of Walter Ashby Plecker, the man who ran the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics for 34 years and systematically erased the Indian identity of thousands of tribal members.

“It caused separations of families,” Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominy Tribe told The Washington Post. “It was devastating.”

Stephen Adkins. Photo by Dan Addison / University of Virginia

Adkins's parents went to Washington, D.C., to get married in order for their Indian identity to be preserved on an official document. Otherwise, they would have been considered "Colored" in Virginia.

Mildred Loving, who was a descendant of the Rappahannock Tribe, also went to D.C. to get married. But she was considered "Colored" under the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, a law advocated by Plecker, and was arrested for marrying a White man.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down the law in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. Lawmakers repealed the law a few years later but the damage had already been done.

“Plecker participated in an official disappearance of these tribes,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) told the Post. “So he might be discredited and the official policy might be to apologize for him, but since the tribes haven’t been recognized, he still has accomplished something that has not been reversed. He’s still winning.”

Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), who apologized for the state's racist past when he was governor in 2002, are hoping to rectify the situation with S.465, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act. The bill extends federal recognition to the Chickahominy Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe - Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Monacan Nation and the Nansemond Tribe.

Chief Kevin Brown of the Pamunkey Tribe, center, is blessed with an honor song during the New Day Now rally at the U.S. Capitol on June 16, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

The tribes could seek recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. But the effort requires considerable resources and time, given the difficulties in producing records of their Indian identity.

It's not an impossible task, though. The Pamunkey Tribe is due to receive a final decision on its petition later this month after spending six years on a process that included four trips to England to find all the relevant documents.

The Senate Indian Affairs Committee approved S.465 at a business meeting in March. It has not been considered on the Senate floor.

The House version of the bill is H.R.872. It has been referred to the House Subcommittee Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs but a hearing hasn't been held.

Get the Story:
How a long-dead white supremacist still threatens the future of Virginia’s Indian tribes (The Washington Post 7/1)
Change may one day help Monacans, other Native Americans receive federal tribe status (The Lynchburg News & Advance 6/30)

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

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