Dancers at a powwow hosted by the Chickahominy Tribe in Virginia. Photo: Tony Alter

Federal recognition bill for six tribes in Virginia inches another step forward

It's been more than two decades since Congress passed a stand-alone federal recognition bill but six tribes in Virginia are hoping to turn the tide in their favor.

The tribes welcomed the first European settlers at Jamestown more than 400 years ago. They signed some of the first treaties with foreign nations and some even settled on the first Indian reservations in what is now known as the United States.

Despite the long history, the Chickahominy Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe - Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Monacan Nation and the Nansemond Tribe are not formally acknowledged by the federal government. A bill slowly making its way through Congress could finally change the situation -- that's if it becomes law.

The House passed H.R.984, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, by a voice vote on May 17. The bill took another step forward on Wednesday, when it was approved by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs with unanimous support.

“The committee’s vote today is an important step in bringing six Virginia tribes closer to receiving federal recognition,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), two supporters of the tribes, said in a joint press release on Wednesday. “This bill gives Virginia’s tribes access to the educational and health care services they deserve and allows members of these tribes to properly pay tribute to their ancestors.”

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Business Meeting September 13, 2017

The action brings the tribes closer to success than at any point in the last decade. A prior version passed the House in 2009 but it stalled in the Senate, where it never came to a committee vote.

H.R.984, on the other hand, is the first to clear those same hurdles. But getting the bill over the finish line in the 115th Congress is another story.

While the House in the past has embraced tribal recognition bills, they are almost always controversial due to concerns about gaming, jurisdiction and land-into-trust. So even if they clear the chamber, they usually die in the Senate.

The Virginia tribes are hoping to avoid the pitfalls with H.R.984. The bill includes an airtight prohibition on gaming and imposes limits on the lands that might be placed in trust by the Bureau of Indian Affairs should they gain federal recognition.

But there's no guarantee the conditions will help the bill in the Senate, where conservative lawmakers have routinely held up other tribal recognition bills. Some of those same lawmakers have even held up bills that are tangentially related to recognition, such as housing programs for Native Hawaiians, who also lack formal acknowledgment by the federal government.

Artist's rendering of Mantle by Alan Michelson at the State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia. The monument will recognize the significance of tribes in the state. Image: Virginia Indian Commemorative Commission

The obstacles explain why the last tribes that gained federal recognition through the legislative process did so when Bill Clinton was president. Congress passed stand-alone recognition bills in the mid-1990s for three tribes in Michigan and another in Alaska.

Two more tribes, one in California and another in Oklahoma, gained federal recognition when they were included a large "omnibus" Indian bill in December 2000. It happened to be one of the last bills signed into law by Clinton before he left office a month later.

With stand-alone bills seemingly doomed to fail, the "omnibus" or bundling approach has re-surfaced in connection with the Virginia tribes. During the last session of Congress, Republicans added their bill to a larger package that would have stripped the BIA of its authority to make decisions on federal recognition petitions.

But that bill never advanced due to widespread opposition in Indian Country, as well as opposition from Democrats and the Obama administration. A key Republican essentially admitted he was putting tribes and the opposite party on the spot by bundling all of the efforts together.

Yet there still seems to be some nostalgia for the "omnibus" approach. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) was prepared to add provisions to extend federal recognition to the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians to H.R.984 but withdrew his amendment at the business meeting on Wednesday.

Chief Little Shell was a leader of the Little Shell Tribe in the late 1800s.

"I want to make sure these tribes in Virginia are able to get their recognition" without muddying up the debate, Tester said. The Little Shell Tribe had been a part of the doomed recognition bill in the last session of Congress.

Despite dropping his amendment, Tester said he plans to "push hard" to secure justice for the tribe, whose federal status is the subject of S.39, the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians Restoration Act, as well as a federal recognition petition at the BIA.

"We stand together in this fight," added Sen. Steve Daines (R-Montana), another member of the committee.

"They've waited far too long to be formally acknowledged by the fed government," Daines said of the tribe. "We need to correct this injustice."

H.R.984, which can now be considered on the Senate floor, was one of three bills approved at the business meeting on Wednesday. The committee also took action on the following measures:
S.1285, the Oregon Tribal Economic Development Act. The bill addresses leasing and land issues for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians. A hearing took place on July 12.

S.1333, the Tribal HUD-VASH Act. The bill authorizes a joint program between the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide rental and housing assistance to homeless and at-risk homeless veterans in Indian Country. The program, known as Tribal HUD-VASH, began as a demonstration during the Obama administration. The committee held a hearing on the bill on June 13.

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to Consider H.R. 984, S. 1285 & S. 1333 (September 13, 2017)

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