Pamunkey tribe awaits acknowledgement: The plight of Virginia’s first people to claim their place in history
| By Dyáni Brown |
The Pamunkey Tribe has one of the oldest reservations in the Unites States and is the first of six Virginia tribes to receive Federal acknowledgement. On July 2, 2015, the Bureau of Indian Affairs confirmed Pamunkey as the nation’s 567th Federally Recognized tribe.
“I’m just glad to be here to introduce Pamunkey Tribe,” Assistant Chief Robert Gray said in an July interview filmed for FNX | First Nations Experience.
However, his eagerness to implement health, education, and housing housing improvement programs for tribal members was halted when Stand Up California, an anti-Indian gaming nonprofit filed a challenge to BIA’s decision on October 8, last day of the appeals period.
Original oppositions came in the the 90-day commentary period following the BIA’s initial favorable proposed finding in January 2014. The list of contenders included local entrepreneurs as well as corporate giants like MGM Grand, whose plans to build a world-class resort at Washington, D.C.’s National Harbor are currently underway.
The fear is that any kind of economic development by the roughly 200-member Pamunkey Tribe will wreak havoc on the tax economy of non-Indians. Meanwhile, tribal infrastructure is lacking, the water quality is bad, and community programs go unfunded.
“Our tribal government is entirely volunteer,” said Kim Taylor Cook a museum assistant at what seemed to be the tribes only source of income.
Cook’s father, George Cook, currently serves on Pamunkey Council and is a former chief, behind his father, Tecumseh Deer Foot Cook, who as Pamunkey Chief for 43-years. We spent all day with Cook on the remote reservation, located nearly 50-miles outside of Richmond.
The tribe’s 1200-acres are scarcely littered with trees and even fewer houses. Cook says that most of the trees were taken down during the Civil War by soldiers who used Pamunkey land as an encampment—at one point they even stripped wood from off tribal member’s homes.
Besides the museum, which houses a small maze of artifacts, photos, and gift shop art behind its monstrous exterior, the tribe is home to the second oldest fish hatchery in the country and Chief Powhatan’s gravesite—a tourist attraction. We spent an entire Sunday with Cook at the museum without encountering a single visitor.
It’s no wonder that behind the closed doors of the tiny schoolhouse museum, which duly serves as the tribal council headquarters, leaders are hashing new plans bring the tribe income. Federal recognition brings opportunity and so no lead is overlooked.
Recent headlines about a potential casino deal has caused internal conflicts among tribal members—a common rite-of-passage for new tribes. While this implies that Stand Up California’s Indian gaming concerns may not be entirely conjecture, tribal attorneys say the tactic of challenging the tribe’s lineage is baseless.
After all, the Pamunkey are direct decedents of Wahunsonacock, Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy and father of the Disney-famed Pocahontas.
Still, the tribe’s lineage gained similar scrutiny by from other groups rumored to be allied with casino giants. The Congressional Black Caucus criticized the Pamunkey’s membership rule banning marriage with blacks as racist.
The policy was the Pamunkey’s response to the threat of their land from being divested under the Walter Plecker administration, which used the “one drop rule” to inflict paper genocide against tribes for mixing. The BIA commented in its proposed finding that Pamunky’s efforts to set policy was in fact proof of the tribes credibility.
Whether the BIA is confident in its decision or not, the bureau is obligated to throughly vet every argument it receives, especially since they created the “third party rule.” Native American policymakers, across Indian Country argue that the rule sets a dangers precedence.
First of all, it facilitates the stereotype that federal acknowledgement is free ticket to a casino or welfare and obscures the fact that tribal development can profoundly contribute to local economies. According to National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), Oklahoma, Washington, Idaho and Minnesota, have increased state economies by millions as well as local employment in the tens-of-thousands. In reality, most tribes only seek to become self-sufficient and increase the welfare of their people to be on par with the national statistics for education, health, and employment, which is severely lacking across Indian country compared to any other race.
Lastly, in practice the third party rule serves as a loophole for big businesses to preserve their bottom line at the expense of either temporarily or indeterminably disenfranchising entire communities of people.
“You don’t get federal recognition through the process if you’re not legitimate,” said Lance Gumbs, Northeast Regional Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians. “The process has become more political than what the criteria actually stand for.”
Gumbs was referring to Connecticut tribes, the Paucatuck Eastern Pequot Indians and the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, whose recognition was overturned after persistent lobbying by Sen. Richard Blumenthal. According to Gumbs, Blumenthal spearheaded the opposition to tribes being able to re-petition.
Gumbs is the former Chairman of his tribe, the Shinnecock Indian Nation in Southampton, New York, which was inducted as the 565th Federally Recognized tribe in 2010. Despite passing each of the BIA’s seven criteria, the tribe’s favorable acknowledgment was met oppositions similar to the Pamunkey. That is after Shinnecock submitted upwards of a 180,000 pages of documentation their 400-year history as the first people of Long Island, N.Y., way more than was required by tribes acknowledged in the 1980s and 1990s.
According to the BIA the Pamunkey, has one of the most well-documented petitions, exceeding in page-count alone what previous petitioners have submitted, even Shinnecock. Still, after more than 30-years of waiting, it’s no telling how much longer the Pamunkey will have to wait. Nevertheless, the tribe’s resilience through a history of colonialism, exploitation, and Virginia’s deep-rooted southern racism has prepared the Paumunkey to persist.