Congress Takes Bipartisan Action on Native American Rights

In a year already marked by a government shutdown, unanimous passage of legislation that would substantially improve a group of Americans’ lives was probably seen as unlikely. And yet, with the signing of the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017 on January 29, Congress has markedly improved the lives of thousands of local Virginian Native Americans.

The Federal Recognition Act of 2017 recognizes six tribes: Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond, all of which were among the earliest peoples to greet the Europeans who arrived on Virginia’s shores in the 1600s. All of the tribes had historic relationships with European settlers who eventually established the Commonwealth of Virginia, initially trading goods and later allying with the European settlers against the Spanish.

Because the European settlers were British subjects at the time of the signing, the treaties the six tribes signed were made with England rather than the United States. This has made it impossible for the tribes to get federal recognition through the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, as many of the documents no longer exist because they were never filed with the United States and preserved in US Archives.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs suggests, although does not require, “description of documentary evidence to show that current group is same group or evolved out of the Indian tribe that the Federal Government previously acknowledged.” However, because none of the tribes had exact genealogies tracing their lineage, since most of the documents were destroyed during the Civil War, proving the tribes’ historic legitimacy has been bureaucratically impossible.

Bipartisan means to redress this issue date back to the 1990s and early 2000s, when Republican Virginia senators George Allen and John Warner proposed legislation giving the tribes federal recognition. Both current Virginia senators, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, have proposed the legislation both in previous sessions of Congress and in the Senate during the present 115th Congress.

The bill was sponsored in the House by Representative Rob Wittman (R-VA), who argued that “This is an issue of respect; federal recognition acknowledges and protects the historical and cultural identities of these tribes. Not only will it affirm the government-to-government relationship between the United States and the Virginia tribes, but it will create opportunities to enhance and protect the well-being of tribal members.”

The bill was passed unanimously in both chambers by a voice-vote. The bill was signed into law by President Trump on January 29, 2018.

Aside from officially acknowledging the tribes’ sovereignty, the federal designation provides access to millions of dollars in healthcare, education, and housing assistance. Over 4,000 Virginians will potentially be able to see their standard of living improve, while also receiving recognition and respect for their heritage and culture.


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