Last week, I joined Governor Kaine, Senator Webb and six of Virginia’s Native American tribes in Richmond for the annual commemoration of the peace treaty between the tribes and the King of England. Originally signed by England’s Lord Charles II and royal governor Herbert Jeffreys in 1677, the event has taken place each year since the 1600’s.
As you may know, I’ve been working for almost a decade to grant Virginia’s tribes federal recognition, providing them the same status as the other 562 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. We reached a major milestone last year, with House passage of legislation granting that designation. It was a historic vote, one that brought the tribes closer than ever before to gaining their rightful place of honor.
A brief recap of their history begins with English settlers landing on what is now Virginia soil at Jamestown in 1607. From those first days of English settlement, Virginia’s Native American tribes played an integral role in the history of Virginia, helping settlers survive harsh winters. Unfortunately, beginning with colonization, the next 400 years saw Virginia’s Native Americans brutally and systematically mistreated.
This racial hostility culminated with enactment and cruel enforcement of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The act empowered zealots, like Walter Plecker, a state official, to destroy records and reclassify in Orwellian fashion all non-whites as “colored.” To call oneself a “Native American” in Virginia was to risk a jail sentence of up to one year. Married couples were denied marriage certificates and were unable to obtain release of their newborn children from the hospital until they changed their ethnicity on the state record to read “colored,” not “Native American.” For much of the 20th Century admission to public school education was denied. Even after federally enforced integration, the state allowed localities to deny Native American children bus service to public schools.
Known as “paper genocide,” this state-imposed policy destroyed early and contemporary records to undermine Native American claims that Virginia’s Indians still existed. These gaps make it nearly impossible for the tribes to pursue federal recognition through the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs acknowledgement process. Their last resort is pursuing an act of Congress, which I have been assisting them with.
Always a festive occasion, this year’s event with the Governor and the tribes was cause for greater than normal celebration. The roadblock to sending the bill to the President’s desk last year was the U.S. Senate. While Senator Webb did an excellent job pushing the legislation, a slim majority and crowded calendar pressured by presidential politics put enactment out of reach. But with President Obama in the White House, a 58 plus seat majority in the Senate and 20 more House Democrats, spirits were high at the commemoration. Virginia tribes’ long hoped for recognition finally has all the pieces of the puzzle needed to right the historic injustice they have had to endure.