Native Americans were subject to centuries of brutal mistreatment following the discovery and establishment of the Americas. In Virginia, our native tribes were no stranger to abuse. But due to more modern discrimination in the 20th century, they are still fighting to close this sad chapter in our nation’s history.
Virginia’s Indians were among those who greeted the first colonists and provided food and assistance ensuring their early survival. Decades before the founding of the United States, the tribes managed relations with the Kings of England, most notably by signing the Treaty of Middle Plantation in May of 1677, which assured protection from English settlers in exchange for an annual tribute.
But time was not kind to the tribes. The tribes have held up their part of the treaty, providing tribute every year for the past 335 years when Virginia’s Governor accepts gifts of fresh game and fresh produce in a ceremony now celebrated on Thanksgiving at the State Capitol. I had the honor of attending one of what I understand is the longest celebrated treaty recognition ceremony in the United States.
The state, however, failed to uphold its part of the agreement. The Virginia tribes were subjected to four centuries of racial hostility and brutal state-sanctioned actions. Up through much of the 20th Century, Virginia tribes were denied full rights as U.S. citizens and much of their records were destroyed. Courthouse destruction during the Civil War erased many of their historical documents. Further, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924, a black mark in our state’s history, led to a “paper genocide,” which destroyed birth records, marriage certificates, and land titles of Virginia’s tribes.
Despite their loss of land, population, and years of discrimination, Virginia’s tribes have preserved their heritage and their identity. But while they have sought recognition from the Commonwealth, these tribes still await the federal government to do the same.
Six of Virginia’s tribes have filed petitions seeking federal recognition with the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs. But the Commonwealth’s discriminatory past has left these tribes without documentation that at minimum ensures administrative action will not happen in their lifetimes and could even invalidate their petitions.
Federal recognition is important to these tribes, not only as a matter of justice, but because it would grant the tribes legal standing and status in relationships with the U.S. government. This status would enable the tribes to pursue historical and cultural artifacts, comment on federal agency actions that could affect their future, and gain access to a number of federal programs that serve the other 565 federally recognized tribes. Many of the older members of these tribes, who were denied a public education and the economic opportunities available to most Americans as a result of Virginia’s discriminatory past, would be eligible to receive federal health and housing assistance.
It is unconscionable that Virginia’s tribes, those who cared for the first American colonists, are still being denied recognition by the very government they supported.
This week, I joined Senators Tim Kaine, Mark Warner and Representatives Rob Wittman, Bobby Scott, and Gerry Connolly to reintroduce an important piece of legislation, the “Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act,” to give long-overdue federal recognition of six of Virginia’s tribes – the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan, and the Nansemond tribes.
This is the seventh time I have introduced legislation to give deserved recognition to these tribes. Similar legislation has passed the Indian Affairs Committees in the 110th and 111th Congresses, only to be defeated on the Senate floor under filibuster threat. With strong bipartisan support in the House and determination by Virginia’s Senators, the “Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Recognition Act” stands a chance of finally becoming law.
Until the federal government can formally acknowledge the legitimacy of Virginia’s tribes, this injustice will continue to cast a shadow over our advances in making amends for past wrongs.