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Pamunkey Indian Tribe becomes first Va. tribe to win federal recognition

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KING WILLIAM, Va. – The Pamunkey Indian Tribe became the first Virginia Indian tribe to receive federal recognition, over 400 years after making contact with the first European settlers and after about 35 years of petitioning the government.

On Friday the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) announced the decision, after the Pamunkey Tribe met the necessary seven criteria.

Some of which included:

  • Continuously identified as an American Indian body since 1900;
  • Existed as a distinct community and maintained political influence over its members since historical times;
  • Provided governing documents describing its governance procedures and membership criteria;
  • Provided a list of its current members who descend from a historical Indian tribe and who are not also members of another federally recognized tribe;
  • Never been subject to congressional legislation that expressly terminated or forbade the federal relationship.

The Pamunkey has occupied a land base in southeastern King William County, shown on a 1770 map as “Indian Town,” since the Colonial Era in the 1600s. Today, the area exists as a state Indian reservation.

The Tribe has a current membership of 203 individuals and elects its own leaders.

The Washington Post reported that:

The decision, which goes into effect in 90 days, means that the Pamunkey will join the 566 other federally recognized tribes and will immediately be eligible for federal funding for housing, education and health care.

Once a tribe receives federal recognition, they are able to pursue gambling ventures on the land federally recognized as their own. Virginia has stood opposed to casinos for decades.

The Pamunkey Chief, Kevin Brown, told the Post that there are currently no deals made, but “it is something that the tribe has looked at and will continue to look at.”

The tribe would also be able to sell gas, alcohol, and cigarettes – among other goods – free of state taxes.

U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine have been strong supporters of the Virginia Indian tribes’ efforts to gain federal recognition. They issued a joint statement praising the decision and congratulating the Tribe.

Despite the integral role the tribes played in American history and the unique cultures they have continued to maintain for thousands of years, they have faced barriers to recognition due to extraordinary circumstances out of their control. Today’s announcement is an important step toward righting this historical wrong, and I’m optimistic that the federal government’s decision to recognize the Pamunkey will spur Congress to act on our bill that seeks long-overdue recognition for six other Virginia tribes - the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Upper Mattaponi, the Rappahannock, the Monacan and the Nansemond.”