chiefs of Virginia's state-recognized tribes with Gov. McDonnell (November 2012)
from L to R: Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson, Nottoway Chief Lynette Lewis Allston, Upper Mattaponi Assistant Chief Frank Adams, Pamunkey Tribal Member Ashley Atkins, Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Chief Walt Brown, Upper Mattaponi Chief Kenneth Adams, Governor McDonnell, Mattaponi Chief Carl Custalow, Patawomeck Chief Robert Green, Monacan Chief Sharon Bryant, Chickahominy Assistant Chief Wayne Adkins
Source: Commonwealth of Virginia
There are 11 tribal groups in Virginia with official state recognition:
Virginia's state recognition process is intended to acknowledge Native American tribes that preceded European colonization. There are few benefits from recognition, but gaining official status is considered a significant honor and can be used when marketing tribal events where visitors are welcomed.
the 2016 advertisement for the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe highlighted the historical status of the tribe
Source: Facebook, Cheroenhaka (Nottoway) Indian Tribe (September 23, 2016)
The state recognition process is supposed to distinguish groups that adopt an ancient culture vs. historical remnants of tribes that have remained in the state despite discrimination, but documentation of historical links to the past is challenging.
State acknowledgement of a tribe is separate from the Federal process. Only the Pamunkey tribe in Virginia has received Federal recognition; that occurred in 2015. Virginia's colonists have formally acknowledged that tribe since John Smith and others arrived in 1607, but the Pamunkey are just one of many Native American groups in the state.
When the English first explored Virginia, they discovered that the paramount chiefdom controlled by Powhatan included over 30 tribes, one of which was the Pamunkey. The English soon dealt with other tribes outside of Powhatan's control, including the Patawomeck and Dogue (Taux) in Northern Virginia, plus the Monacans and Manahoacs west of the Fall Line.
As explorations extended westward, colonists traded, fought, and negotiated with additional tribes such as the Tutelo, Saponi, Meherrin, Nottoway and Cherokee, plus Susquehannocks north of the Potomac River and Iroquois based in New York. Fur traders, government officials, and frontier settlers learned the distinctions between different groups in order to arrange for food, furs, land, and peace.
John Smith started the Virginia colonists' dealing with the Susquehannocks in 1608
Source: Library of Congress, Virginia (by John Smith, 1624)
Formal treaties between Virginia and today's Pamunkey/Mattaponi tribes date from the 1600's. Those treaties were signed long before the American Revolution led to the creation of a Federal government. In the 1700's, colonial officials in London asserted more-centralized control over Native American affairs, but still struggled to control trade between Native American groups and colonists.
The Proclamation of 1763, issued by King George III after the French had ceded their North American claims, was a blunt tool intended to minimize expensive conflicts over land claims. The proclamation identified "Indian territory" and banned new settlement west of the Alleghenies, at least in theory.1
the Proclamation of 1763 defined a boundary blocking settlement (red line), based on the Eastern Continental Divide
Source: US Geological Survey (USGS), Hydrography Viewer
Since its creation in 1788, the Federal government of the United States has taken the role of the sovereign and signed treaties with various tribes to establish reservations and manage land "in trust," define the boundaries of hunting and fishing rights, and provide some social services. In Virginia, however, tribal relations with the government involved state rather than Federal agencies, until the US Department of the Interior finally granted Federal recognition to the Pamunkey tribe in 2015.
For example, the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation formalized a dedicated state reservation. Today's Mattaponi and Pamunkey reservations date back to that treaty, and some preceding agreements. The US Congress had no role in creating those two Virginia reservations; another century would go by before the US Congress itself was created.
the Mattaponi and Pamunkey reservations are in King William County, upstream of the headwaters of the York River at West Point
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
Virginia tribes began a concerted effort for state recognition after a 1900 law required separate railroad coaches for white vs. colored passengers, local officials during World War One sought to draft tribal members as blacks, and anthropologists James Mooney and Frank Speck initiated professional anthropological studies that spurred tribal organization.2
Virginia provides special fishing and fishing rights to members of recognized tribes. A person who "habitually" resides on a reservation or a member of one of the state-recognized tribes who resides in the Commonwealth does not have to obtain a state hunting or freshwater fishing license from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
The fishing license exemption is limited to freswater streams managed by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. Saltwater fishing licenses are issued by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, for fishing in the state's three mile zone in the Atlantic Ocean, the Chesapeake Bay, and the downstream portion of tidal rivers.
The Mattaponi and Pamunkey reservations are on freshwater sections of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi rivers, upstream of the Route 33 bridges at West Point that the two state agencies use to define saltwater vs. freshwater. Native American residents on the two state-recognized reservations do not need licenses to fish in the rivers where they live, and the Conservation Police Officers of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries must be trained on fishing rights of reservation residents in the Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers.3
the state agencies that issue fishing licenses define the Route 33 bridges as the boundary for freshwater and saltwater licenses
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The Virginia Council on Indians, which was responsible for the administrative process and recommending approval or rejection by the General Assembly, defined six criteria in 2006 for recognition:4
To obtain state recognition, three tribes bypassed the administrative process in Virginia's executive branch and went directly to the General Assembly.
In 2010, the General Assembly granted recognition directly to the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Nottoway of Virginia, and Patawomeck tribes, using the legislative process to bypass the Virginia Council on Indians and its six criteria for recognition. The Virginia Council on Indians had recommended against recognition of the Nottoway Indian Tribe of Virginia, and the other two tribes never submitted petitions to the council.5
Legislators from the state legislative districts of those three tribes advocated for recognition in 2010, despite concerns that abandoning the administrative process could encourage other groups with less cohesion through time to seek recognition as an official tribe. News media highlighted the legislative hearing when entertainer Wayne Newton testified in support of Patawomeck recognition.6
After the 2010 General Assembly recognized the three tribes, the Virginia Council on Indians stopped meeting. In 2012, the General Assembly abolished the council, as part of the governor's reorganization of the executive branch of state government.
When the Virginia Council on Indians was abolished, it had received "letters of intent" but no formal petitions for recognition from the Appalachian Intertribal Heritage Association, Inc.; United Cherokee Indian Tribe of Virginia, Inc.; Blue Ridge Cherokee, Inc.; Tauxenent Indian Nation of Virginia; and Bear Saponi Tribe of Clinch Mountain Southwest Virginia.7
dancers at 2012 powwow in Fairfax County's Riverbend Park highlight that Native Americans have always been part of the population in Virginia
Virginia now relies purely upon a legislative process for recognizing new tribes. There is no administrative review process managed by the governor's executive branch of government to validate proposal for recognitions. The only path for groups to obtain recognition by the Commonwealth of Virginia as a tribe is passage of a law by the Virginia General Assembly.
Virginia's elimination of the administrative process and reliance upon just a legislative process for recognition is comparable to Tennessee's recent experience.
The Tennessee Indian Affairs Commission proposed to recognize six tribes in 2010. The decision was voided after the federally-recognized Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma sued. The state legislature then eliminated the Tennessee Indian Affairs Commission, abolishing that state's administrative process for tribal recognition.
The debate in Tennessee involves whether current groups were remnants of organized tribes with clear ties to the past, or just recently-formed "culture clubs" seeking legitimacy and access to Federal programs. In the 1600's and 1700's, the Cherokee, Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw, Shawnee, and Yuchi nations lived in that area, but there are no state-recognized tribes in Tennessee today.8
Mattaponi Reservation on Mattaponi River
Source: US Geological Survey 1:24,000 scale topographic map, 1949 - King And Queen