Virginia’s six Tribal Nations are observing the fifth anniversary this week of the United States formally recognizing their sovereign governments.
Formal recognition enabled the six nations to build infrastructure and programs to serve thousands of tribal residents and neighboring community members with health care, food, education, housing, emergency preparedness and environmental stewardship.
After decades of advocacy, President Trump signed into law the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017 on Jan. 29, 2018. The law gave recognition to the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe-Eastern Division, the Monacan Indian Nation, the Nansemond Indian Nation, the Rappahannock Tribe and the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe.
“We are able to compete for federal funds, place land into trust, repatriate the remains of our ancestors in a respectful way, and have a voice in federal agency actions that could harm us,” Chief Frank Adams of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, which opened a health clinic at the height of the pandemic that serves the entire King William County community, said.
According to Gerald Stewart of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe-Eastern Division, the Tribe built a successful childcare facility with curriculum based on tribal culture.
“The years after federal recognition are like drinking out of a firehose,” Stewart said. “Then came COVID, which both devastated and led to long-overdue federal investments in Indian Country.”
Federal recognition enabled the Monacan Indian Tribe to protect their ancient capital at Rassawek. The capital was threatened by destruction to make way for a government project. Instead, the tribe was able to organize a food bank, build an elder-care facility and accomplish nearly 60 other objectives.
“We are still here and we are thriving,” Kenneth Branham, Chief of the Monacan Indian Nation, said. The tribe, the largest with 2,895 residents, is headquartered in Amherst.
Although among the first tribes the British colonists met in the western world, the six tribes are the latest of 574 Indian tribes to be recognized by the U.S. government. Efforts led by Virginia Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, former Sen. George Allen, and Congressman Rob Whitman, raised awareness of injustice created by the delay in recognition and secured votes for passage of a legislative remedy.
The Rappahannock Tribe’s federal status enabled the return of 465 acres at Fones Cliff on the eastern side of the Rappahannock River, the site of three villages and a large breeding population of bald eagles.
“We will create public access trails and cultural and conservation education programs,” Chief Anne Richardson said. She hopes to acquire another 500 acres at Fones Cliff for the tribe.
This week’s milestone anniversary also changes the relationship between the tribes and the Commonwealth.
“Our people have lived in what became Virginia for more than 10,000 years,” Stephen Adkins, Chief of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, said. “But we are still working to bring Virginia government up to speed on what it means to have sovereign tribes also able to serve citizens in the Commonwealth.”
In 2022, tribal leaders worked with state leaders to create a commission to update relevant aspects of the Virginia code to reflect the presence of federally recognized tribes. A second bill made tribal governments eligible for grants from the Virginia Land Conservation Fund. Passage of SB 1332/HB 2004 is the tribes’ top priority for the 2023 legislative session. The legislation would require state agencies to consult tribes when permitting projects that could impact their environmental, historic or cultural resources.
“It has been a privilege to witness this profound progress in Native, American, and Virginia history,” Cultural Heritage Partners Founder Greg Werkheiser said. CHP serves as counsel to the six tribes as they navigate growing sovereign governments.