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Virginia Tribes Still Struggle for Recognition

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Posted: Tuesday, November 13, 2012 6:00 am

Virginia honored the commonwealth’s Indian tribes last week, a subject that the U.S. Congress continues to ignore. Perhaps the new Congress elected last week will change that.

Gov. Bob McDonnell called attention to the importance of Virginia’s tribes by proclaiming November as American Indian Heritage Month. Among the tribal leaders at the ceremony was Sharon Bryant, chief of the Monacan Indian Nation based in Amherst County.

Doug Domenech, Virginia’s Secretary of Natural Resources and chairman of the event, said the state has “a unique legal, historic and political relationship with her 11 state-recognized Indian tribes. And we recognize that consultation with tribes should be meaningful, in good faith and entered into on a government-to-government basis. We are honored to partner with them.”

Six of Virginia’s tribes, including the Monacans, are still seeking federal recognition, which would entitle them to benefits available to hundreds of other tribes around the country.

Such recognition is important because it would make the tribes eligible for federal grants in such areas as education, health care, housing and other areas that could improve their livelihoods. More than 560 other tribes around the nation have been recognized by the federal government, but the Virginia tribes have run into road blocks at every turn.

Federal recognition would enable the Monacan and five other Virginia tribes to qualify for benefits provided through the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs and other agencies.

The six tribes seeking federal recognition were recognized in 1983 by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The other five tribes are the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock and Nansemond.

Last year, a Senate committee approved a bill recognizing the Virginia tribes, but it never received a full Senate vote. The measure has passed the full House twice and President Obama has indicated he would sign it.

“Virginia has a long history with Virginia’s first people,” McDonnell said in a statement last week. “Virginia Indians are not only an integral part of our history, but also continue to be an important part of our society. This proclamation recognizes that fact.”

It’s too bad the full U.S. Senate can’t be moved to take up the question of federal recognition for Virginia’s tribes. A bill to that effect has been introduced by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Jim Webb, D-Va.

Webb has fought passionately for the recognition that other tribes have received. Commenting on the legislation, he has said, “We must honor the heritage of our Virginia tribes, a heritage aggravated in the past by racial hostility and state-sanctioned actions [race laws] that greatly diminished their cultural identity.”

Chief Bryant greeted news of the Senate committee’s approval philosophically. “We just go on faith every time that we submit that bill that maybe they’ll see the truth of who we are and what needs to be done for human justice.”

The task of achieving that human justice now falls to Warner and Senator-elect Timothy Kaine, a Democrat elected last week to succeed the retiring Webb. They must pick up where Webb left off and take the recognition battle to the conclusion it deserves.

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