Monacan homecoming

Members of the Monacan Youth Dancers perform a traditional dance during a Monacan gathering in Amherst in October 2014.

In what may one day be beneficial to Monacans and other Native American groups, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced Monday a rule change aiming to increase transparency and streamline the process for American Indian groups seeking federal recognition of tribal status.

For Native American tribes, federal recognition provides benefits to include housing and medicine as well as tribal autonomy. Such recognition may be achieved through several methods including a congressional or presidential act or through a determination by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Although recognized by Virginia, federal recognition has long been denied to the Monacan Indian Nation and other Virginia tribes.

The Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2015, re-introduced by Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, both Democrats, would grant federal recognition to six Virginia Indian tribes including the Monacans. In March, the bill was passed out of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and awaits further progression. For more than a decade, earlier incarnations of the bill have failed to gain congressional support.

A similar bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Robert Whitman, R-Va.

“Senator Kaine believes recognition remains long overdue for the Virginia tribes were the first to encounter European settlers and played an important role in the founding of our nation,” said Kaine’s spokeswoman Sarah Peck in an email.

Seeking federal recognition through the BIA is a lengthy process that even the bureau acknowledges may take decades to achieve. So far, only 17 of 566 federally-recognized tribes have achieved recognition through the method.

Criteria tribes must satisfy includes providing evidence from external sources that identify the petitioner as a tribal entity from 1900 to the present. The petitioner also must show political authority over its members from “historical times” or the tribe’s first contact with non-Indians.

Providing such evidence, is especially problematic for Virginia Indian tribes owing to treaties established before the creation of the U.S. government and other actions such as the burning of courthouses — and the subsequent loss of historical records — during the Civil War. A further roadblock would be the results of a decades-long racial law during the 20th century that forbade claiming Indian heritage on vital records, what some have called “paper genocide.”

Proposing a rule revision last year, the Department of the Interior announced Monday changes that aim to lessen the “documentary burden.”

Among the revised criteria is petitioning tribes no longer would have to provide third-party proof of their existence but can provide their own evidence. Meanwhile, tribes would need only show evidence of community and political authority from 1900 onward.

Despite some opposition to the changes, the federal government lauds the revisions as expediting a lengthy process in terms of time and documentation.

“This updated rule is the product of extraordinary input from tribal leaders, states, local governments and the public,” said Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs Kevin K. Washburn in a news release. “We have a responsibility to recognize those tribes that have maintained their identity and self-governance despite previous federal policies expressly aimed at destroying tribes.”

According to Chief Dean Branham, the Monacan Indian Nation never has sought recognition through the BIA process, but for those tribes seeking recognition in that manner, the changes may help to reduce paperwork.

Speaking of federal recognition, “it’s a right that’s owed to us,” Branham said.

“It’s not about just checks and money and stuff, the federal government owes us this right.”

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Contact Sherese Gore at (434) 385-3357 or sgore@newsadvance.com.

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