RD74 - Recognition of Virginia Indian Tribes

  • Published: 2014
  • Author: Secretary of Natural Resources
  • Enabling Authority: Letter Request from the Senate Committee on Rules

Executive Summary:
The Virginia Council on Indians, which had been charged with evaluating all petitions for recognition as a Virginia Indian Tribe, was eliminated in 2012, at the written request of a majority of chiefs, through item 32 of HJR 49 approving the Governor's reorganization recommendations. During the following Session in January 2013, the General Assembly was confronted with several resolutions from groups with possible, but unevaluated, associations with the historical Cherokee habitation of southwest Virginia requesting recognition by the Commonwealth as Virginia Indian tribes. In the absence of an established procedure or criteria for evaluating such requests, the Senate Rules committee set those resolutions aside and asked that the Secretary of Natural Resources investigate the issue and make recommendations for future sessions.

Over the past year the Office of the Secretary of Natural Resources and the Department of Historic Resources has examined the broad context of Virginia Indian history and issues underlying recognition of tribes both in Virginia and in the other states with state-recognized tribes, and listened to the observations of Virginia Indian chiefs. What we have found is that in order for state tribal recognition to be meaningful, particularly when it applies to access to federal programs, there must be a consistent and rigorous process by which those tribes are recognized.

The criteria should be based on a continuity of community cohesion, descent from known historical tribes within Virginia as well as a continuity of identity as Indians through the centuries. These are broad criteria that not all groups seeking recognition will be able to meet. Some will claim that they cannot be met given Virginia's history of denying Indian identity in key public records particularly during the early 20th century. That said, there is a difference between acknowledging the possible or even likely descent of individuals and families from Virginia Indian roots and recognizing those individuals and families as a formal "tribe." For this reason, we are suggesting a new second option that would acknowledge Indian heritage and honor groups that wish to revive that heritage through a commending resolution rather than full tribal recognition.

Summary of Recommendations:

1. That the General Assembly establish a Joint Commission on Virginia Indian Recognition comprised of both legislative and non-legislative members and that future requests for recognition be handled by the Joint Commission through a two-stage process.

2. That this process should:

a) Be consistent and non-political;

b) Rely on established criteria and standards of documentation consistent with the federal process;

c) Include scholarly review and input from appropriate executive branch agencies as well as input from state recognized tribes and from federally recognized tribes in cases where the petitioners are claiming descent from a tribe that has been recognized by the federal government;

d) Require a full bill with the governor's signature rather than a resolution for full tribal recognition; and

e) Include a new second option for less rigorous acknowledgement and commendation of groups that may not meet the criteria for recognition as tribes, but that can demonstrate an ongoing identification with Virginia Indian cultural roots and heritage.

Such commending resolutions can be used as they are now to honor the actions and events relating to individuals as well as organized groups. Such resolutions could address groups that may not meet the criteria for full state recognition, and also activities and events associated with tribes recognized by the Commonwealth or the federal government as well as non-tribal or multi-tribal organizations. Preliminary criteria for these commending resolutions arc also provided. Applications and language for commending resolutions would also be reviewed by the newly created Joint Commission on Virginia Indian Recognition prior to adoption.

Note that within the context of this report the term "tribe" is reserved for historical tribes and those that have already been recognized by either the Commonwealth or the federal government. All other collections of people claiming Indian descent or heritage are referred to as "groups" or "organizations" so as not to prejudice any future requests for recognition. These latter terms may also refer to peoples prior to their formal recognition or to aggregates larger than tribes.