Sunday, January 21, 2018

The decision to recognize six Virginia tribes is a major victory for east coast tribes

"Congress shall have the power to regulate Commerce with foreign nations and among several states, and with the Indian tribes."
- Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution

The underpinning of our understanding of the role of tribes in the national framework comes from the above quote. Tribes are listed separately in the Constitution, separate from the states and from foreign nations. The Framers intended for tribes to occupy a separate sphere of the geopolitical world of the new United States government, a decision that seemed to be of little consequence to the Framers. At that point in history, it was thought that Indian tribes were on the way out and some, including Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, argued that the path forward for Native peoples was to adopt the customs and traditions of mainstream American society. This thought process would be a recurring theme throughout the 19th and early 20th century.

An affirmation of tribal sovereignty and the codification of the idea of tribes as separate, but not equal, nations came when Chief Justice John Marshall referred to them as "domestic, dependent nations" and described their relationship with the United States government as being like a ward to its guardian. In what is known as the "Marshall trilogy" of cases, Marshall also re-affirmed that the federal government has exclusive right to regulate tribes and that tribes exist separately from the states in which they reside. 

For many tribes however, their sovereignty and right to exist in this framework were not immediately recognized. Many tribes, including my own ancestors, had seen their numbers dwindle and cultures erased by the encroachment of British settlers prior to the American Revolution. For tribes along the east coast, the settlement of the British was devastating. In many cases, our nations were thought to be extinct, our legal rights to our land were not recognized, and the American government would have rather pretended that we did not exist. As I detailed in a previous post, many Native Americans were marked as "free persons of color" or "mulatto" in the United States Census and some legislatures, namely Virginia, went the extra mile and passed legislation that created a racial binary between white and "colored," thus legislatively erasing Native identity.

For many tribes on the east coast, the recognition of our sovereignty has only come about in the latter half of the 20th century, hundreds of years after our first contact with the British. The Mohegan, Narragansett, Catawba, Pequot, Shinnecock, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Pamunkey and many others have only relatively begun to enjoy the sovereignty that should have been recognized at First Contact.

Last week, the United States Senate passed legislation, previously passed in the House, that will add six more tribes to that list. The tribes, all based in Virginia, can trace their lineages back to first contact and include descendants of the Powhatan Confederacy, who remain well-known due to their connection with the Jamestown settlements and their role in American lore. This is an important victory. While tribes in the coastal Northeast have had a reasonable amount of luck in getting their sovereignty recognized, the states in the Southeast have been less fortunate. There is perhaps no better example of this than the tribes in Virginia's neighbor to the south.  

In North Carolina, there are seven state recognized tribes (one federal, the Eastern Band of Cherokee in western NC). Most of them are relatively close to the coast and all of them occupy rural spaces. Many of them also occupy spaces that are incredibly economically disadvantaged. In fact, my tribe, the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, exists in one of the poorest and most crime ridden counties in the entire United States. While the tribe was granted partial recognition in the Lumbee Act of 1956, our sovereignty was not recognized and the bill had little practical effect. Seeing six Virginia tribes be recognized in one piece of legislation represents a beacon of hope to the tribes in North Carolina who eagerly await for the same fate. 

I will not pretend that federal recognition is not a cure-all for all economic ills. In fact, some of the more dire poverty in the United States exists on reservations where tribes are recognized. However, federal recognition brings with it a few key benefits, the most important of which is a recognition of the existence of sovereignty that predates the existence of the United States.  It also provides tribes with the right to independently pursue economic development without relying on the states, enhanced protection of the rights to their artifacts and history, the right to run their own educational systems, and a litany of other items that come with being a distinct sovereign entity. The benefits of economic development for a tribe extend beyond just creating wealth in the community, it also allows for the raising of funds to assist with cultural preservation and the creation of scholarships and tribal schools to educate youth, both of which are essential for the perpetuation of culture and the expression of sovereignty. 

The decision to recognize six Virginia tribes is an incredible victory for eastern Native people. We were among the first to encounter the British and seemingly among the last to have our sovereignty and rights to our ancestral land recognized by the United States government. I celebrate the passage of this act and applaud Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine for their work on getting it through the Senate. 

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