I’m departing this week from Abandoned Country‘s theme of disappearing history to comment on a significant event: the United States government has given preliminary approval for recognition of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe of Virginia. They’re the first indigenous nation in Virginia to receive that acknowledgement.
That’s very big news, and a departure of sorts because the Pamunkey aren’t disappearing, nor have they ever been. They were here long before the first Europeans set foot in this hemisphere. They’ll be around for countless generations more. Life will go on as usual for the Pamunkey, but this new designation may have significant implications for this ancient tribe and other nearby Virginia Indians.
The government will confer legal recognition after a 13-month waiting period that gives time for public comments and other official obligations, but the tribe has widespread support in Virginia and beyond.
That the Pamunkey are an Indian tribe was never in doubt. Identity, after all, isn’t something that can be quantified; it is a product of collective memory, common world views, shared history, and the Pamunkey have that cache of intangible experiences that speak to their existence as a nation. Their past is sufficient declaration to validate their claim to tribal status.
Where hard-and-fast evidence is required, though, the Pamunkey teem with it, in the old folkways now very much alive in the modern community. Pamunkey hands are still caked with local clay as they spin, pinch and fire pottery. Testament to the long history of this ritual are the ancient shards found on the banks of the Pamunkey River, the buried pits where, centuries ago, women discarded broken, imperfect vessels. Pamunkey men still carry on the timeless ritual of fishing, setting nets each spring for the American shad that run up their river. Tribesmen spawn millions of young fry in their hatchery and release them back into the Pamunkey River, embracing a long tradition, too, of giving back to the natural world they consider themselves a part of.
Left: The Pamunkey Shad Hatchery Right: Pamunkey men ready for fishing
The Pamunkey were among the first Native Americans to greet Englishmen, who in 1607 set up camp in Tsenacommacah–the name of Powhatan’s dominion long before it became Virginia. The tribe appears in historical records early and often. Wahunsonacock and Matoaka, known the world over as Powhatan and Pocahontas, were Pamunkey. The tribe signed treaties with the English in 1646 and 1677, the latter firmly establishing the Pamunkey’s reservation on the banks of the river of the same name.
That treaty likewise established an annual tribute to Virginia’s governor in lieu of property taxes for the 1,200-acre reservation, which the tribe was guaranteed forever. Every year, on the steps of the Executive Mansion in Richmond, the Pamunkey, along with the only other reservated tribe in Virginia, the Mattaponi, present the governor, who attends in person, crafts fashioned by their own artisans and wild game killed on their own lands. The Pamunkey are proud that they’ve upheld their end of the treaty for more than 330 years.
Top: Scenes from the Pamunkey Indian Reservation
Bottom: Pamunkey tribesmen present Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife the annual offering of wild game
The Pamunkey Indian Reservation, home to 80 or so people, is a state within a state. The Pamunkey are a sovereign nation and their reservation sovereign ground. Tribal law supersedes state law there. A tribal council, headed by a chief, governs Pamunkey affairs. Elections occur every four years and voters use pea and corn kernels tossed into a basket instead of paper or voice votes.
Though Pamunkey hold dear their ancient heritage, that’s not to say they’re detached from the world around them. There are roughly 200 members of the tribe today who live all around the United States and have forged all manner of careers for themselves, from repairmen to archaeologists. But Pamunkeys’ unique lineage has afforded them a position few other citizens hold, living in two worlds, Virginia Indian and American.
Left: A Pamunkey boy and a friend (my son) play on the banks of the Pamunkey River
Right: The Pamunkey Indian Museum and old schoolhouse
The United States government was slow to acknowledge the Pamunkey Indians’ tribal status, even though the Commonwealth of Virginia legally did so in 1983; even though the Pamunkey’s documented existence predates the United States by more than a century; even though a law passed by Congress in 1980 (Public Law 96-484) referred to the Pamunkey as an Indian tribe; even though the 1910 United States census identified 96 Indian individuals living on the reservation in 1910, and that nearly two-thirds of current members can document generation-by-generation descent from at least one of those early residents; even though the Pamunkey have been featured in an exhibit called “Our Lives” in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian since 2004.
Federal recognition took a long time for a few reasons. First, the effort by Pamunkey Indians to be acknowledged by the United States government is a recent phenomenon, originating in the last decades of the twentieth century. Also, their petition was through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, which, like most agencies of the government, is a bureaucracy whose workings scoot along at a snail’s pace. What’s more, the BIA understandably requires thorough documentation of Indian ancestry, and, in Virginia anyway, that’s not simply a matter of pulling dusty old volumes out of storage. The King William County courthouse burned in 1885. Also, a state registrar in the 1920s ordered Indian birth certificates changed so that they read “colored” instead of “Indian.” To get around those dead ends, the Pamunkey used census and church records to catalog their Indian identity.
For the Pamunkey, federal recognition is foremost a matter of principle–getting the very government that they’ve been loyal to, that they’ve served in the military and other civil capacities, that they predate as a nation, to acknowledge that they are who they say they are.
Practically, recognition opens the tribe to federal health, housing and education grants that the United States government offers to almost 600 other Indian tribes. To be clear, however, the Pamunkey are not an indigent people residing on some barren patch of out-of-the-way land. Their reservation today is a well-kept rural community, one that was there long before any modern subdivision. The Pamunkey were never in this for the money.
Recognition also confers a sort of pioneer status on the Pamunkey. Fourteen other Virginia tribes have submitted a letter of intent to the government saying they will be seeking federal recognition. Six of them hope to achieve that through an act of Congress. It’s not clear what sort of leverage the Pamunkey’s recognition will give these other tribes’ efforts.
Also not certain is the nature of the relationship between the federal government and, at least for now, what will be Virginia’s only recognized Indian tribe. There are several uncertainties that will work themselves out as time goes on. For example, the estimated 1,400 sets of Virginia Indian remains stored at museums, including the National Museum of Natural History, have not undergone repatriation for lack of a federally recognized tribe to claim them. Will the Pamunkey all of a sudden become the custodians of the bones of so many of their Virginia Indian ancestors? No telling.
For now, though, the Pamunkey are no doubt satisfied that the federal government has done what it should have done a long time ago and acknowledged their status as a nation, their title as custodians of this land long before the United States existed.