National | Federal Recognition

Pamunkey Tribe wins IBIA decision in favor of federal recognition

The Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center is located on the Pamunkey Reservation in Virginia. Photo from Facebook

The Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia is finally joining the family of Indian nations after a last-minute challenge was rejected.

The tribe's federal recognition was due to become effective on October 6, 2015. But a setback arose when a group thousands of miles away asked the Interior Board of Indian Appeals to review the matter that very same day.

The IBIA, however, determined that Stand Up For California lacks standing. A January 28 decision found that the group, which operates out of small town in northern California, failed to show how it would be affected by a tribe on the other side of the country.

"Stand Up argues that 'Tribal acknowledgment directly affects the gaming environment in California," Chief Administrative Judge Steven K. Linscheid of the IBIA wrote in the nine-page ruling. "Why or how that is the case is left unarticulated and unexplained by Stand Up, and no declarations accompany its brief."

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) accepts an annual treaty tribute from the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes on November 25, 2015. Photo from Twitter

"Nor, as relevant to our disposition of this case, does Stand Up explain how acknowledgment of the tribe, which is located in Virginia, would affect in any way the 'gaming environment in California,' or how that in turn would affect Stand Up as an organization, which states its goals as seeking to educate and to develop policy related to gambling issues affecting California," the decision continued.

Although it's possible that the group could try to keep the battle going in federal court, the IBIA's action means the Pamunkeys can finally be added to the list of federally recognized tribes. The Bureau of Indian Affairs submitted the list -- with 566 tribes on it -- for publication in the Federal Register on January 27, just a day before the ruling.

"The tribe never doubted that its final determination would become final and effective, though it is pleased that the IBIA was able to reach final resolution so quickly," the Pamunkey government said in a statement on Monday. "The tribe can now move forward in its new chapter as a federally-recognized Indian tribe."

The Pamunkeys are the first in Virginia to complete the federal recognition process. The journey took six years and included four trips to England to document a history that is closely tied to the colonization of the United States.

An undated photo of the Pamunkey Reservation in Virginia. Photo from Virginia Department of Historic Resources

The tribe was among several that welcomed the first European settlers at Jamestown in 1607. Pamunkey leaders later signed two treaties with the English colonial government, including one that resulted in the establishment of the 1,200-acre reservation that the tribe still calls home today.

But like others in Virginia, the tribe was never properly acknowledged by the federal government. The situation was further complicated by racist laws and policies in Virginia that prohibited people from identifying as Indian. Official documents were destroyed and changed in an effort to erase the state's first inhabitants from the record.

Despite the obstacles, the Pamunkeys secured a favorable proposed finding from the BIA in January 2014 although controversy brewed when opponents like Stand Up For California and members of Congress raised questions about an outdated tribal law that appeared to bar marriages to African Americans. The policy was repealed in 2012 and was never an issue on the reservation, former Chief Kevin Brown said last year.

With that issue settled, the BIA's Office of Federal Acknowledgment issued a final determination in July 2015 that said the Pamunkeys proved their status as a legitimate tribe.

Kevin Brown, the former chief of the Pamunkey Tribe of Virginia, speaks at a rally organized by the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development at the U.S. Capitol on June 16, 2015. Brown led his tribe through the federal recognition process. Photo by Indianz.Com

"The Pamunkey Indian Tribe has occupied a land base in southeastern King William County, Virginia - shown on a 1770 map as 'Indian Town' - since the Colonial Era in the 1600s," the BIA said in a press release at the time.

The reservation is located about an hour east of Richmond, the state capital. It's home to a few dozen families and the Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center. Most other tribal members live nearby in the Richmond area and in cities south of the reservation.

Prior to the Pamunkeys, the Shinnecock Nation of New York was the last to gain federal recognition through the BIA. The decision also faced a challenge that was dismissed by the IBIA due to standing issues. The tribe's status became final immediately afterward.

Interior Board of Indian Appeals Decision:
In Re Federal Acknowledgment of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe (January 28, 2016)

Relevant Documents:
Letter to Chief Brown | Notice of Final Determination

Federal Register Notices:
Final Determination for Federal Acknowledgment of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe (July 8, 2015)
Proposed Finding for Federal Acknowledgment of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe (January 23, 2014)

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