October 01, 2014

Kaine Calls For Greater Flexibility In Federal Recognition Process For Indian Tribes

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Tim Kaine submitted comments to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) on a proposed rule regarding the Federal Acknowledgment of American Indian Tribes. Kaine recommended the BIA adopt greater flexibility in its recognition process to account for extraordinary circumstances like the barriers Virginia Indian tribes have encountered on the path toward federal recognition.

“Virginia’s Indian tribes contributed to the successful founding of our country and continue to help define our national identity,” Kaine wrote in a letter to Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn. “Their members have attended our schools, worked next to us, and served in every American war since the Revolution, all while maintaining a unique identity. Virginia’s tribes have gone without federal recognition not because they lack a historic relationship with the United States, but, as John Collier wrote in 1943, ‘as a matter largely of historical accident.’ The tribes’ unique circumstances should not disqualify them from the recognition they deserve.”

Kaine introduced the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act along with U.S. Senator Mark Warner in 2013. The legislation, which would grant federal recognition to six Virginia Indian tribes, was passed out of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in April of 2014. Kaine made a passionate case for its passage during a committee hearing in October of 2013. The House companion bill, introduced by Congressman Jim Moran, has received strong bipartisan support from many members of the Virginia delegation. Kaine continues to push for passage of the legislation as well as greater flexibility in the BIA recognition process.

Full text of Senator Kaine’s submitted comments can be found here.

Full text of the letter is below:


The Honorable Kevin K. Washburn

Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs

U.S. Department of the Interior

1849 C Street, N.W.

Washington, D.C. 20240

Dear Mr. Washburn,

Virginia’s Indian tribes have been an integral part of the Commonwealth and the country’s history from the very beginning. The first permanent English settlement in the Americas survived thanks to diplomatic relations with the Powhatan Indians, and every child in America knows the story of Pocahontas. Those same tribes live in Virginia today, sustaining thousands of years of unique cultures and communities. Yet, despite their renowned role in our nation’s history and their continual self-identity, no Virginia tribe has yet been formally recognized by the federal government.

Virginia’s tribes face two major hardships when applying for federal recognition through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). The first challenge is that they made peace with European settlers too soon: the Treaty of Middle Plantation was signed between English colonists and several Virginia tribes in 1677, predating the establishment of the United States by almost 100 years. Although this treaty still governs the relationship between Virginia’s tribes and the Commonwealth of Virginia, it was never formally recognized by the federal government. Had the Native Americans in Virginia waited to make peace for another 100 years, their right to self-governance surely would have been formally recognized by the federal government.

The second and more difficult hurdle faced by Virginia’s tribes is the historical destruction of records. Five of the six courthouses that held the vast majority of the tribes’ records were burned during the Civil War. Even beyond accidental destruction, Virginia’s tribes were victim to systematic discrimination through the intentional destruction of their records. Encouraged by a growing eugenics movement and fears of interracial marriages, officials at the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics began actively destroying the vital records of Virginia’s tribes in 1912. Virginia codified this discrimination in 1924 by passing the Racial Integrity Act, which forced the Commonwealth to adopt a strict policy of recognizing only two races: “white” or “colored.” During the nearly fifty-year period that the law remained intact Virginia’s tribes were not allowed to list their race as Native American. Officials even went so far as to retrospectively change records to list Native Americans as “colored.” By the time the law was struck down in 1971 the Commonwealth had intentionally robbed its tribes of decades of documentation, essentially destroying their ability to gain federal recognition through BIA’s process.

The Commonwealth of Virginia now acknowledges both the damage done by its reprehensible discrimination against Americans Indians native to Virginia and the indispensable role played by those tribes in its culture, economy, and history. All six living Governors of Virginia support federal recognition for Virginia’s tribes and there has been an ongoing bipartisan, bicameral effort to gain federal recognition for our tribes through Congressional Action. I reintroduced S.1074, The Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act, in May 2013. The bill traces the history of six Virginia tribes to the Colonial Era and seeks Congressional recognition. While I hope the bill succeeds, previous attempts failed, in part, because some Members of Congress believed that BIA remains in the best position to assess the credibility of petitioners who seek federal tribal recognition. The federal recognition process does apply consistent standards outside the political process. But I also believe the BIA should adopt flexibility to account for extraordinary circumstances like the barriers our Virginia tribes have encountered in gaining federal recognition.

Virginia’s Indian tribes contributed to the successful founding of our country and continue to help define our national identity. Their members have attended our schools, worked next to us, and served in every American war since the Revolution, all while maintaining a unique identity. Virginia’s tribes have gone without federal recognition not because they lack a historic relationship with the United States, but, as John Collier wrote in 1943, “as a matter largely of historical accident.” The tribes’ unique circumstances should not disqualify them from the recognition they deserve.

I am encouraged by BIA’s efforts to improve its federal recognition process. Efforts to make the process more transparent and efficient and to allow flexibility for tribes with unusual circumstances deserve praise. Thank you for the work the agency has already done and for your careful consideration of the attached comments.

Sincerely,

Tim Kaine

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