Adkins: Virginia tribes deserve federal recognition

Wayne Adkins is the second assistant chief of the Chickahominy Tribe. He serves as president of the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life (VITAL), the group working to gain government recognition through Congress for six Virginia tribes.

Virginia Indians deserve to make history -- 400 years is long enough to wait for recognition of identity.

Standing in the sanctuary at St. Georges Church in Gravesend, England this past summer, honoring for the first time the Virginia Indian woman Pocahontas, seems so surreal to me. It was impossible not to reflect on what has happened to her people and mine since that winter in 1616 when, as a young woman, she traveled by ship with her English husband to visit the Court of Queen Anne. This reflection resulted in both tremendous pride and grief.

I had never been to England before and it is fair to say that all of us in the Virginia Indian delegation that week were somewhat apprehensive. Looking back at this experience, I realized that as Tribal people we have been too silent. We have not often felt the pride or expressed publicly the true feelings we have concerning the portrayal of the history of the Native people of Virginia. We have for far too long been suppressed. Honoring the life of Pocahontas, at the place that is a living reminder of 400 years of history, helped to bring it all into focus.

Since 2000, I have been on the Board of Directors of the Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life (VITAL), the non-profit organization that has worked to coordinate the sovereignty movement of the Virginia Tribes. Representing six Virginia Indian Tribes (Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Chickahominy Eastern Division, Nansemond, Monacan, and Rappahannock), VITAL has persevered in a long and often frustrating political process. But we have persevered, because we burn for recognition of the heritage and culture that we have quietly maintained, and to bring honor to our ancestors who were not given that recognition. Our desire to stay in our communities, to perpetuate our culture and family lines, all without public recognition, was part of a long tradition of survival. It was not because we left or disappeared, as the history books seem to imply. Unfortunately as we stand for our right to join the other 562 federally recognized Tribes in this country, we have once again had to defend our identity and our heritage. As I prayed at the burial site of Pocahontas at Gravesend, all these things ran through my mind. Our trip to England was part of our destiny. We came back stronger in our conviction that our quest for recognition was the right thing to do.

The story of Pocahontas that is widely known today is largely a myth, a romantic legend that plays to those who fantasize about the exotic nature of exploration and first contact. That myth has overshadowed much of the true story, a story that is much less romantic but far more compelling. It is about a people that have a unique place in the foundations of a modern nation but who have not been recognized for that. We feel that history has not accurately reflected what we have experienced, who we are or who we want to be. VITAL has persisted in the Congressional process because we feel the need to fill in the details, to get past the legends, to reclaim our history. Jamestown 400 years later brings all this history together for us in one time and place.

We owe our survival to more than our own strength. We owe it to reporters like Peter Hardin, who wrote a key story at the right time about Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, making public the sad truth of the racial discrimination directed towards the Indian people in Virginia. It is also a story which most Virginians outside of the Tribal communities knew nothing of. We don’t like to tell that story but it explains why we have stayed quiet, and how we have survived.

We owe our survival to wise and courageous people that have stood beside us, people like The Reverend Jon Barton and the Virginia Council of Churches. And we owe it to the many public officials who believe in us and our cause despite the controversial political dynamics, people like our primary Congressional sponsor Jim Moran, our Governor and many others.

We have a hearing on our recognition legislation (HR 1294) scheduled today, April 18th 2007, at 10:00 a.m. before the Natural Resources Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. We ask those of you who are interested in the real history of Virginia Indians to listen in on the Web to our testimony. 2007 is our time, time for the Federal Government to recognize the Virginia Indian Tribes. That recognition will be our commemoration of Jamestown.

Committee Notice:
Full Committee Legislative Hearing: H.R. 1294 and H.R. 65 (April 18, 2007)

Recognition Bill:
Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act (H.R.1294)

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