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Federal recognition for Pamunkeys brings tribe closer to nationhood

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 7/9/2015, 4:27 p.m. | Updated on 7/9/2015, 4:27 p.m.
Defeated in battles with the English invaders who took their land, the Pamunkey Indians have been on a reservation and ...
Joyce “Pale Moon” Krigsvold, a volunteer at the Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center on the reservation and an expert potter, stands near a likeness of the first Pamunkey chief, Powhatan, on the tribal grounds in King William County. Photo by Sandra Sellars

Defeated in battles with the English invaders who took their land, the Pamunkey Indians have been on a reservation and under the thumb of Virginia’s government for more than 350 years — long before there was a state.

Now the dwindling descendants of Pocahontas, Powhatan and other members of the tribe that met the first English settlers to Jamestown in 1607 are one step closer to gaining their independence — and separation from Virginia.

The U.S. Interior Department has announced that the Pamunkey Indians would become the first tribe in the Commonwealth of Virginia to receive official recognition from the federal government.


The recognition allows the 203-member tribe to begin the process of turning its 1,200-acre reservation in King William County into a separate, self-governing entity independent of state control — and opens the possibility the tribe might develop a gambling casino.


The beauty and tranquility of the 1,200-acre Pamunkey reservation is captured on the banks of the Pamunkey River near the Pamunkey Fish Hatchery.

The beauty and tranquility of the 1,200-acre Pamunkey reservation is captured on the banks of the Pamunkey River near the Pamunkey Fish Hatchery.

If the Pamunkey tribe ultimately transforms the reservation into a sovereign nation, it would represent the state’s first loss of territory since 50 northwestern counties broke away to form West Virginia during the Civil War.

About 50 tribal members live with their families on the reservation, a mix of farmland, forests and marsh on the banks of the Pamunkey River about 45 miles east of Richmond.

The Pamunkey tribe is one of 11 Native American tribes the Commonwealth of Virginia recognizes. The tribe will gain the coveted federal recognition in 90 days — in early September — opening the door to federal programs. Six other Virginia tribes are seeking federal recognition through legislation in Congress.

“We’re elated,” acting Pamunkey Chief Robert F. Gray said in a telephone interview from his home on the reservation, one of two in the state, the other being for the Mattaponi tribe located near West Point.

“Finally, the federal government has acknowledged we are a historic tribe,” said Chief Gray, ending forever any chance the state could wipe out the tribe’s identity, as it tried to do for decades before World War II.

Joyce “Pale Moon” Krigsvold, an expert potter and volunteer at the Pamunkey Indian Museum and Cultural Center on the reservation, said the tribe likely would hold a celebration of the historic recognition once it becomes official in two months.

The tribe’s efforts to gain federal recognition began 35 years ago and have cost an estimated $2 million.

Repeatedly rebuffed, the tribe filed its latest application in 2012. According to the federal government, the tribe more than made its case that it has been organized since at least 1900 and could prove its existence and the family history of its members with records dating back to colonial times.

Before submitting the latest application, the tribe voted to end a longstanding ban against interracial marriage between tribal members and African-Americans.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus in January had urged the Interior Department to block recognition of the tribe because of the ban. The department overruled the objection in issuing its final decision.

Former Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown wrote the CBC that the ban was rooted in Virginia’s culture of racism. “Racial intermixture was raised repeatedly as a rationale to divest us of our reservation and our Indian status,” he wrote.