The Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center on the Pamunkey Reservation in Virginia. Photo: Alexandra Zernik / VCU Capital News Service

Pamunkey Tribe confronts questions about race-based history

The recently-recognized Pamunkey Tribe is once again facing questions about enrollment criteria that have kept some people from becoming citizens due to African ancestry.

The tribe links citizenship to U.S. Census counts that were conducted in 1900 and in 1910, The Richmond Free Press reported. These rolls, however, are problematic because Pamunkeys who engaged in any sorts of activities with African-Americans had already been banished by that time, the paper said.

“The use of the 1900 and 1910 censuses as immutable base rolls is inherently racist because it is designed to exclude those Pamunkey Indians who were expunged from the rolls," Jasmine N. Anderson, whose ancestors were banished from the tribe in the late 1800s after a family member opened a school that allowed African-Americans to attend, told The Free Press.

Anderson isn't the only one concerned. Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Wisconsin) is calling on the tribe to repudiate the so-called "Black Laws," which are closely linked to racist policies that had been advanced by the state of Virginia well into the 1900s.

“I am confident that we share the goal of seeing the ugly history of the Pamunkey Black Laws truly put to rest so that the Pamunkey Tribe and all its people can move into a prosperous future,” Moore wrote in a June 2019 letter to Chief Robert Gray.

The tribe faced similar questions during its quest for federal recognition, when African-American members of Congress brought up the "Black Laws." The chief at the time said one particular law that appeared to bar marriages with people of African descent was never an issue and had already been repealed by the time the doubts were raised by lawmakers.

Chief Gray told The Free Press that such laws were "not enforced" on the reservation. But he also acknowledged that Anderson can't gain citizenship because her ancestors are not classified as Indians on the 1900 or 1910 federal censuses.

According to the National Archives and Record Administration, the 1900 and 1910 counts were based on "Indians on reservations." The Pamunkey people have been living on a reservation since colonial times, despite the federal government's failure to acknowledge the tribe's status until 2016.

Documents show that census enumerators were told to record an Indian person's tribe and the tribe or tribes of his or her parents. The enumerators were also asked to document whether an Indian person had any "white blood."

"If he or she has white blood, write 1⁄2, 1⁄4, etc, whichever fraction is nearest the truth," the instructions for the 1900 census read.

The 1900 and 1910 Indian census rolls do not appear to be available online. They can be ordered on microfilm.

In reviewing the tribe's petition for federal acknowledgment, the Bureau of Indian Affairs cited the "Federal Indian population census" counts from 1900 and 1910 as evidence of the Indian identity of certain Pamunkey ancestors, according to the proposed finding.

Read More on the Story
Blood Feud (The Richmond Free Press February 28, 2020)

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