Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe. Photo: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia)

A historic moment as Congress approves first tribal recognition bill in decades

A landmark bill to recognize six tribes in Virginia is headed to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Final passage of H.R.984, the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, represents a historic moment for Indian Country. A stand-alone tribal recognition bill hasn't cleared both chambers of Congress since the mid-1990s, when a Democrat was in control of the White House.

But, thanks to bipartisan support, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe - Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, the Monacan Nation and the Nansemond Tribe are about to secure formal acknowledgement of their status, some 400 years after their ancestors welcomed the first European settlers at Jamestown. They signed some of the first treaties with foreign nations and some even settled on the first Indian reservations in what is now known as the United States.

"It's a fundamental issue of respect, and fairly acknowledging a historical record, and a wonderful story of tribes that are living, thriving and surviving and are a rich part of our heritage," Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), a former Democratic candidate for vice president, said on the Senate floor on Thursday.

"This is a happy day to stand up on their behalf,” Kaine added.

Video courtesy Sen. Tim Kaine: H.R.984 - Virginia Tribes Federal Recognition Bill

Representatives of all six tribes were on Capitol Hill on Thursday as the Senate passed H.R.984 by unanimous consent, meaning no one objected. The bill cleared the House last May, also with unanimous support.

“Today we have taken a critical step forward in correcting the federal government’s failure to recognize the ‘first contact' tribes of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Virginia), the sponsor of the bill, said in a press release. “Decades in the making, federal recognition will acknowledge and protect historical and cultural identities of these tribes for the benefit of all Americans."

The Trump administration never got a chance to formally state its views on H.R.984 because no hearings were held on it during the 115th Congress. Lawmakers advanced the bill because similar versions had cleared both the House and the Senate during prior sessions, and because it enjoys bipartisan support.

But there is little to indicate that Trump won't sign it. In just the past month alone, he has signed two stand-alone bills into law.

“Today with renewed pride in our country, we walk our lands," Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe said. "While I always knew in my heart of hearts Congress would do the right thing, this moment renews my faith in the United States of America. We are proud as the federal government finally recognizes us to be the people we are."

Video courtesy Sen. Tim Kaine: H.R.984 - Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act

If H.R.984 becomes law, Virginia will be home to seven federally recognized tribes. The Pamunkey Tribe gained recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, instead of through Congress.

The six tribes could have gone the BIA route but they face some unique historical issues. Following centuries of neglect by the United States, their Indian identities were systematically erase from official documents due to the racist policies of a key state official in Virginia.

"Essentially, since 1607, it's kind of been downhill for us," First Assistant Chief Wayne Atkins of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe said. Settlers began arriving at Jamestown in 1607.

But going through Congress wasn't an easy feat either. Recognition bills have been introduced as far back as 2000 but the tribes were never able to gain significant traction until the past couple of years.

One of the reasons was a major concession on behalf of the tribes. H.R.984 contains an airtight prohibition on casinos -- the tribes will never be able to follow the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

The bill also includes limits on the tribes' ability to restore their homelands. They can only acquire trust lands in certain counties and some of those lands must have already been purchased by the tribes in order to qualify for the land-into-trust process.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia), head of table left, and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) are seen with representatives of six Virginia tribes in Washington, D.C., on January 11, 2018. Photo: Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia)

The Pamunkey Tribe, on the other hand, isn't subject to the same restrictions. But the BIA effort took considerable time and resources -- the tribe's federal status became final in 2016, after seven years of work and at least four trips to England to find documents needed to meet the criteria for federal recognition.

Throughout all of the efforts, on Capitol Hill and in the BIA, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) supported the tribes. He helped host the Pocahontas Reframed film festival in Richmond, the state capital, last November to bring more attention to the struggles faced by indigenous peoples.

"This is all about understanding the culture, the society of folks who were always in this country," said McAuliffe, who is ending his term of office on Saturday.

The last tribes that gained federal recognition through the legislative process did so when Bill Clinton was president. Congress passed stand-alone recognition bills in the mid-1990s for three tribes in Michigan and another in Alaska.

Two more tribes, one in California and another in Oklahoma, gained federal recognition when they were included a large "omnibus" Indian bill in December 2000. That happened to be one of the last bills signed into law by Clinton before he left office a month later.

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