The Pamunkey Tribe has recently come under fire by the Congressional Black Caucus for, until very recently, their constitutional prohibition of intermarriage with black people. When placed in a contemporary context, the small tribe (enrolled population of just over 200) would be the poster child for antiquated notions at best, and legislated racism at worst. The problem with this statement is that the Pamunkey’s historical and contemporary realities are fueled by a highly complex matrix of racial prejudice directed towards them—not only in social and educational form, but through the massive bureaucracy and class distinction maker known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Much of the contemporary Pamunkey reality has been forcefully created via pressures, intentional or not, from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and their enforcement arm known as the Office of Federal Acknowledgement. It should be further stated that the Pamunkey have always been and will always be an Indian tribe. They have endured hundreds of years of colonizing contact, and have still stood with pride in who they are. They should never have had to play this game. This is no different in terms of the reality of the other Virginia tribes with whom our tribe has held a multigenerational attachment via being Indian boarding school classmates. These tribes include the Upper Mattaponi, Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Chickahominy Indians Eastern Division, Rappahannock and Monacan.
If Indian tribes are to be denied federal recognition or have their federal recognition rescinded on the basis of racism towards black people, then hundreds of tribes would be immediately stricken from the federal register. Racism towards people of many racial backgrounds is highly pronounced in many areas of Indian country. Recent disenrollment attempts by tribes such as the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and Nooksack in Washington State of tribal members from black and Filipino ancestry respectively, are glaring examples of the Indian world’s adoption of mainstream racial attitudes for social and political purposes. Unlike the Cherokee and Nooksack, who are federally recognized tribes with political protections that unethically allow such actions, historic “non-federal” tribes find themselves in unique and highly problematic scenarios when issues of race are contested within their tribal communities, and such contestations become the make or break factors towards public opinion, legal status, and social standing.
Historic “non-federal” tribes in the East and South have particularly difficult decisions to make in the area of race. These decisions may have been enacted for sheer survival in the past not only in social ways, but in ways that were life and death matters concerning their political futures. Tribes such as the Pamunkey, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, Nanticoke, MOWA Choctaw, Eastern Pequot, Houma, Wampanoag, and Unkechaug were placed into positions where in order to maintain their tribal identity, they were socially, legally, and even violently forced to abandon their associations with black ancestry. While these alliances continued for some socially, the public face of such friendships and family connections became the pointed focus of anthropologists, government officials and racists. Some contemporary academics of both tribal and non-tribal lineage have even attempted to discredit or question these contemporary tribes due to their mixed-black ancestry. Unfortunately, it seems today that a determining factor during the federal recognition process is a tribe’s distance from blackness and closer proximity to whiteness.
The recognition process is so fraught with land mines and taboos that political insiders vouch to the handicapping of odds and politicking by people in positions to promote various nations. Rather than challenge special interests and racially intolerant forces, BIA leadership often succumbs to what could be thought of as misguided pragmatism. There is no better example of this entrenched, institutional mentality than Office of Federal Acknowledgment Director Lee Fleming (Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma citizen). As the new Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Kevin Gover took Fleming’s advice to deny the tribes’ petition. In 2004 testimony before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Gover had this to say about his previous decision, “First, I strongly believe that certain petitioners, which already have been denied recognition, should be permitted another opportunity under the revised process established by this bill…Even some of the petitions I personally acted upon leave me wishing that this revised process had been in effect when I was in office. Into this category I would place the MOWA Choctaw.”
To my eye, Fleming’s adherence to a racial agenda against the MOWA Choctaw is supported by highly controversial statements he made at a 1995 genealogical conference in Alabama, one year before he became an OFA employee. Professor Don Rankin stated in a letter to MOWA Choctaw leadership that the following conversation occurred during the course of the conference, “Someone brought up the MOWA Choctaw and their attempt at federal recognition. At this stage, several people had gathered around as we were talking. Ms. Brown responded in an even professional tone of voice that she felt that they would not be successful. When asked why, she responded that they had black ancestors and in her opinion were not Indian. Mr. Lee Flemming (sp), who was at the time the Tribal Registrar for the Western Band of Cherokee and one of the lecturers, agreed with her. I was shocked at their statements.”
Fleming agreed with this despite the fact that the MOWA Choctaw generationally attended Indian boarding schools, had retained their traditional language, live on a recognized Indian reservation, have intermarried with nearly 30 different federal tribes nationally, and have maintained attendance at a local Indian school identified in the Library of Congress since 1835.
Following this misguided “logic,” it would be safe to assume that Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown would be sensitive to such concerns. Any tribal leader in his position who wanted to ensure a successful campaign would need to develop a plan for recognition that would acknowledge the inherent biases in the system. If people like Fleming need a tribe that could show that his process works, the Pamunkey are without question the ideal candidate.
The Pamunkey fulfill the first prerequisite, which is the ability to lay low and not publicly contest the failures of the Office of Federal Acknowledgment. Second, OFA has no interest in recognizing any tribe that will cause fiscal issues for the already economically strapped Bureau of Indian Affairs. With just over 200 members, the Pamunkey Tribe is perfect in this sense. Next, it would be helpful to recognize a tribe that does not have any federally recognized gaming tribes in the region. This is difficult for most petitioners to fulfill, but the Pamunkey just happen to be that community. They also are bolstered by their long-term presence on a historic state reservation and the fact that Pocahontas, a beloved American icon, is a Pamunkey descendant. Another bonus to their petition is that they are not affiliated with already established federally recognized tribes. Because there are no other Pamunkey claimants or branches of this tribe, they become the sole purveyors of that identity.
The Pamunkey Council made a strategic move when six other Virginia tribes created a joint Congressional bill for recognition, and the Pamunkey declined to join. They knew that their inclusion would have bolstered the bill but instead they chose to quietly engage the Office of Federal Acknowledgment on their own. This decision may leave them as the sole federally recognized Virginia tribe for many years to come as it appears that Congress is a politically dead path to federal recognition anymore. The Pamunkey’s generational attendance at Indian boarding schools was a huge piece of support, though it appears Fleming minimized it in the narrative of their positive determination.
In the OFA response, Lee only mentioned the Pamunkey presence at the Cherokee Boarding School in North Carolina. Even though the Pamunkey attended Carlisle, Bacone, Hampton and Haskell, I believe he made it a point not to mention this, as that would open the door of recognition to the small number of other historic “non-federal” tribes who attended Indian boarding schools. Of course, these tribes are considered to have mixed-black ancestry. (The new federal regulations overseen by Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn now enshrine attendance at Indian boarding schools as evidence that can be used as proof of Indian identity and community, an encouraging sign of change.) Racial bias is also a factor in Fleming’s mention of the Pamunkey prohibition of black intermarriage as a positive in their maintenance of an Indian identity and cohesive community in their final determination.
The effects of forced alienation by white lawmakers for these tribes from black communities, both contemporarily and historically, resurfaces today in the misunderstanding between members of the Black Congressional Caucus and the small number of historic “non-federal” tribes still maintaining their communities in the East and South. The generationally oppressed and powerless historic “non-federal” tribes get cast as the oppressor. The Congressional Black Caucus should be concerned about the Pamunkey and many other tribes who have alienated black people. However, they should take it up with them post-recognition when they become a part of the federal system the Congressional Black Caucus represents.
The author is exploring the Red and Black divide in Indian Country over the course of this three article series.
Cedric Sunray (MOWA Choctaw) is a longtime educator and current student in the University of Oklahoma Indian Law Program.