Washington Post: Va. lawmakers seek recognition of tribe erased by ‘paper genocide’


A bipartisan group of Virginia legislators introduced a bill in Congress this week to secure federal recognition for an Indian tribe whose connections to the region reach back thousands of years.

If passed, the Patawomeck Indian Tribe of Virginia Federal Recognition Act would offer federal benefits to the tribe, including resources for economic development, health care and education, as well as access to grant money, said a statement from Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a sponsor of the bill.

Brad Hatch, the chair of the tribe’shistory, culture and education committee and a member of its tribal council, said federal recognition would open up opportunities to a historically underserved group devastated by colonialism.

“It acknowledges the treaties made with us in the past and broken,” Hatch said in an interview. “It creates a government-to-government relationship between us and the United States. It’s important to us to maintain our self-determination.”

There are more than 570 federally recognized tribes, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, including seven in Virginia. Such status means they have tribal sovereignty, or the right to self-government — ensuring that decisions about tribes’ property and citizens are made with their participation and consent. Most tribes received federal recognition status through treaties, acts of Congress, presidential executive orders, federal administrative actions or federal court decisions.

The bill, introduced Monday by Spanberger and co-sponsored by Rep. Jen A. Kiggans (R-Va.) and Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D-Va.), said the Patawomeck Tribe “occupied a prominent place in the documented history of the first half-century of European contact with the Native Virginians,” including a meeting with Captain John Smith in 1608.

In 1666, the bill said, Virginia declared war on the Patawomecks, killing most of the men and enslaving most of the women and children not already living in English families. By the early 19th century, many community members settled in Stafford and King George’s counties — but were written out of history by a 1924 state law that required all people to be identified as White or “colored,” according to the bill.

“This law, in addition to other aspects of the racialized society that existed in Virginia starting in the late 1600s, effectively erased Virginia Indians from the official records of the Commonwealth until the middle of the 1900s, amounting to a paper genocide,” the bill said.

After the tribe adopted a constitution in 1996 and worked on reconstructing its native Algonquin language, the bill said, Virginia recognized it in 2010. Legendary singer Wayne Newton, who grew up in Virginia and claims ties to the tribe, advocated on its behalf.

Hatch said ancestors of the Patawomeck came to what is now Potomac Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River in Stafford County, around 15,000 years ago.

Around A.D. 1300, Hatch said, large villages appeared around Potomac Creek. These communities, which traded with Virginia’s Jamestown colony, are the people whom Smith encountered centuries later.

In an interview, Spanbergersaid she represents nearly 2,000 members of the Patawomeck Tribe. Federal recognition would not only bring economic benefits, she said, but validate the tribe’s place in history.

“At the most basic level, it’s the basic recognition that the United States recognizes the historyof our country,” she said. “It’s the recognition that, hundreds of years ago, there was a vibrant community active in Stafford … and that those individuals continue to play an integral part of our community.”

Patawomeck Chief Charles “Bootsie” Bullock said in a statement that federal recognition of the tribe is “long overdue.”

“Our community has always been here, and we have been a strong part of the fabric of our Virginia home,” he said in the statement. “We are not only descendants of many centuries of our ancestors, but today we are neighbors, colleagues, friends, and proud Americans — and our heritage deserves to be recognized by the federal government like other Indigenous communities.”

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