Descendant pushes to be recognized by Pamunkey Tribe despite vestiges of ‘Black Laws’
Jeremy M. Lazarus | 2/28/2020, 6 a.m.
The Pamunkey Indian Tribe’s fight in the General Assembly for the right to build gambling casinos in Richmond and Norfolk is shining a renewed spotlight on the tribe’s use of racial bigotry to ensure its survival.
The tribe’s history of white supremacist policies and practices — though sharply disputed by tribal Chief Robert Gray — have largely flown under the radar during this session of the General Assembly and went almost unnoticed during the tribe’s long years of applying for federal recognition.
According to documents the Free Press has obtained, the Pamunkey enacted “Black Laws” that mirrored Virginia laws to suppress African-Americans. The tribe did it to fend off efforts from hostile white neighbors to push them off their 1,200-acre reservation in King William County.
Beginning in 1861 as the Civil War started, the tribe passed an internal law authorizing the banishment of any member whose family was connected in any way with African-Americans.
The racial cleansing was almost essential for the tribe, which supported the Union. Like other Virginia Indians, the Pamunkey were almost wiped out between 1924 and 1975 when the state refused to recognize Indians as a separate ethnic group and classified them as African-Americans.
During World War II, members of the Pamunkey and other Virginia tribes fought against being drafted if they were to be assigned to African-American units in the racially segregated military. As was the case in World War I, they would agree to be assigned only to white units.
Still, even after the state’s Racial Purity Law was repealed in 1975, the Pamunkey kept on its books its law banning interracial marriage.
The tribal law stated that “No member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe shall intermarry with any other person other than those of white or Indian blood” and prescribed forfeiture “of their rights as members of the tribe” for violators. That “Ordinance of the Pamunkey Indian Reservation” remained intact until August 2014, according to U.S. Department of the Interior records, or nearly 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage.
The federal government required the tribe to repeal the ordinance as part of gaining federal recognition in January 2016. Prior to repeal, the Congressional Black Caucus raised concern about official recognition for a tribe with such a racist law, but was overruled.
Virginia’s two U.S. senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, who both championed federal recognition of the Pamunkey and other Virginia tribes during their tenures as governors and on Capitol Hill, said in statements they were unaware of the tribe’s history in relation to African-Americans.
Gov. Ralph S. Northam’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the history of the tribe, which has long been part of the Virginia Council on Indians.
A 38-year veteran of a fully integrated Air Force, Chief Gray said he found it “offensive” that anyone would consider the tribe to be racially bigoted. He said the so-called Black Laws “were not enforced” and are akin to the array of unconstitutional state laws promoting white supremacy that the General Assembly finally and officially eliminated from the state legal code during the current session.