After more than three decades of exhaustive research, paperwork and waiting, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe is just a few steps away from becoming the first federally recognized tribe in the Common-wealth of Vir-ginia.
On Jan. 17, Chief Kevin Brown and the Pamunkey Tribal Council announced that they had received a proposed finding to grant the tribe the federal recognition they seek from Kevin K. Washburn, the assistant secretary of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior.
Right now, 566 tribes are acknowledged by the U.S. government.
The Pamunkey Indian Tribe is one of two tribes in Virginia, along with the Mattaponi, who have members living on state reservations.
The tribe, Brown noted, still honors a treaty originally made with Great Britain in 1646, delivering deer and wild game to the governor of Virginia in an annual tribute ceremony in Richmond.
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The tribe’s federal acknowledgement effort began around 1980, Brown said. Researchers set out to prove that the Pamunkey tribe is a free-standing entity that has been in existence since the earliest contact with English settlers.
Clear documentation for the tribe’s unbroken existence and relation to the original Pamunkey people had to be collected to make a strong case.
“You just have one shot at it,” Brown said. “If you get turned down, that’s it, you get turned down. We went over and over and over everything so many times.”
It was a lot to gather and get in order, Brown explained.
By the time the effort was finished, the tribe had collected two whole vans worth of documents — from huge maps and ancestry charts to family Bibles, census records, ship logs, anthropologists’ scholarly papers, newspaper articles and writings by Thomas Jefferson.
Some of the earliest documents recovered by tribe researchers were collected over the course of four research trips to England.
“We scoured the globe,” Brown said.
A required narrative document telling the tribe’s full story from the earliest traceable roots was 1,100 pages long on its own, he added, and that was just a fraction of what was delivered to federal regulators.
“I think it’s over 22,000 pages,” Brown said. “It was just crazy.”
Once the information was gathered and the tribe could submit its official petition for federal acknowledgement — in October 2010 — the Office of Federal Acknowledgement in Washington, D.C., set about meticulously fact-checking the information the Pamunkey provided.
“They go over it with a fine-toothed comb,” Brown said.
The office, he explained, has several teams of specialized researchers and genealogists who scrutinize the documents submitted by tribes seeking federal recognition.
For the Pamunkey, that review process took more than a year. There also have been waiting periods, comment periods and delays due to the federal government shutdown in 2013.
After an additional 180 days for public comments and 60 days for rebuttal, the Department of the Interior will make a final determination on the request.
Brown noted that this public comment period isn’t the time to voice support for the tribe’s bid for recognition — that comment period passed two years ago. Now is the time for anyone opposed to the tribe’s effort to speak, or forever hold their peace.
Brown acknowledged that other tribes, including the Monacan, Nansemond, Rappahannock, Upper Mattaponi, East Chickahominy and Chickahominy, have sought federal recognition through an act of Congress.
Pamunkey tribe members were approached to participate in that effort, he said, but were already more than a decade into their research for the traditional application process through the Office of Federal Acknowledgement.
“We were in no hurry. We wanted to do it the old-fashioned way,” Brown said.
But what does federal recognition mean? Brown said that it provides a chance for certain federal grants and assistance, but those don’t come automatically.
Federal acknowledgement means the United States government recognizes the Pamunkey tribe’s government as an official entity with which it can do official business, opening up the possibility for grants, loans, emergency assistance and other services and programs.
“King William County often seeks grants from the federal government for different projects,” Brown added. “We’d be able to do that, but it doesn’t guarantee anything.”
The Pamunkey tribe is small, with 203 members as of October 2012, 60 of whom live on the reservation. Brown said that may mean they’ll have to hire outside help to write and administer grants and other programs that could come as a result of the federal designation.
“I think it’ll mean most to the future generations,” Brown said. “It might be 10 or 15 years before we realize the benefits.”
That said, Brown noted that recognition is about far more than access to federal grants and programs.
“It’s a matter of historical justice, and not just for us,” Brown said, pointing out the rich American Indian history in Virginia. He said his tribe had contact with Capt. John Smith during his first visit to Virginia in 1607. “They couldn’t overlook us when we’re woven into the fabric of American history.”
Tribe members and interested scholars will enjoy the fruits of the federal recognition research for years to come.
The Pamunkey tribe plans to establish a library with the historical and genealogical documentation gathered as part of the effort.
They have received assistance in their federal recognition efforts from the Native American Rights Fund and are represented by the law firm Tilden McCoy + Dilweg LLP.