In 2016, the Pamunkey Tribe in Virginia received federal recognition in Virginia, becoming the first tribe in that state to be recognized. Now, in 2019, the Pamunkey are seeking to secure land in Norfolk, Virginia to begin building a proposed $700 million casino.
With this $700 million dollar casino, the Pamunkey—who received recognition in 2016 through the federal BIA process— are setting a precedent that has not been seen in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The state will have gaming for the first time.
The other six tribes—consisting of the Chickahominy, the Chickahominy, Eastern Division, the Monacan, the Nansemond, the Rappahannock, and the Upper Mattaponi—gained federal recognition in 2017 through Congressional legislation, known as the Thomisina Jordan Act, that signed into law by President Donald Trump on January 29, 2018.
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Since the six Virginia tribes were recognized through an act of Congress and agreed not to seek gaming as part of the agreement in the act, they will not be able to follow in the footsteps of the Pamunkey.
The Pamunkey sit apart from their fellow Virginia Tribes as they went through the formal Bureau of Indian Affairs / Department of the Interior federal recognition process. The tribe is not bound by any specific legislative stipulations tied to gaming.
The Pamunkey Indian Tribe in Virginia is working to secure land in trust in order to have gaming. But rather than stifle the process of bringing gaming to Virginia, state lawmakers agreed on compromise legislation that would allow cities in the Hampton Roads area to have gaming.
In short, the Pamunkey can have gaming whether or not their yet to be submitted land into trust application is approved.
Chief of the Pamunkey Tribe Robert Gray says his tribe, direct descendants of Chief Powhatan and his daughter Pocahontas, says his tribe has ancestral ties to the area, even though his reservation sits in King William County, approximately 90 miles from Norfolk, Virginia.
Chief of the Pamunkey Tribe Robert Gray. (Photo Vincent Schilling)
Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray said to The Virginian-Pilot, that his tribe's ancestors lived, farmed and hunted in much of central and eastern Virginia, but asserted "We don't say this is ours and no one else's … There was a lot of overlap with these tribes."
Gray told Indian Country Today, “The various tribes interacted and traded with each other and this was all throughout the area. The treaties relegated us to King William County and we needed special permission to travel outside our region. Those were the treaties of 1600. Prior to that, we were all over. Dr. Helen Rountree even said regarding us being in New Kent we were stretching it. That New Kent site is 11-miles across the river from us. There's no way you can say that we weren't in that area.”
The Nansemond Indian Nation, a tribe currently residing in the Hampton Roads area, that has long ancestral ties to Hampton Roads, with a concentration in Norfolk, aren’t warming to the possibility of the Pamunkey claiming ties to the region.
The Nansemond Indian Nationt chief, Samuel Bass posted an open public letter on Facebook and had sent the letter to Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Alexander. In the letter, Bass wrote that they had “concerns regarding the recently announced intentions of the Pamunkey Tribe.”
In the letter, Bass writes that the Pamunkey’s “service delivery area” or areas the BIA and the Department of the Interior recognize as ancestral lands, are not in the Hampton Roads area. Bass also wrote that they wished to be included in any future discussions regarding a resort casino in Norfolk.
“This is our ancestral land, our community, and the foundation for our future. Discussions that have happened to date have been incomplete without our voice,” wrote Bass.
In December, The Virginian-Pilot reported in their article Pamunkey tribe working to buy land for casino near Harbor Park in Norfolk, that the Pamunkey Tribe is in negotiations with the city of Norfolk, Virginia, to purchase an approximate 20 acres.
The proposed 20 acres potentially going to the Pamunkey is prime real estate in a prime location. Norfolk, Virginia, part of Hampton Roads, home to the largest Naval military port in the world. The property also sits adjacent to the Norfolk shipyards, is next to the Norfolk Harbor Park baseball stadium, the public light rail as well as the Amtrak Station.
The proposed casino on the proposed agenda for the tribe is a $700 million dollar project with a $200 million dollar payroll. The projected economic impact for the long-struggling Norfolk city to become a major city hub is a projected $1 billion dollars.
As reported by the Pilot, Norfolk Mayor Kenneth Alexander issued a statement which said, "The tribe's decision validates Norfolk as an emerging destination for tourism in the mid-Atlantic and the center for entertainment in Hampton Roads."
At this point in time, the purchase is not a done deal, the Pamunkey Tribe may seek Class 3 gaming, which would require approval from the Commonwealth of Virginia. Though the Hampton Roads area is politically-supportive of the casino, a Virginia State Senate committee voted at the end of January to stop any local referendums, until a comprehensive study is done.
The Pamunkey was at first going to be the only entity to be allowed gaming due to the land in trust.But now the compromise legislation gives a green light to other Virginia cities. But only after the study is done.
The Nansemond blessing is also not necessary for gaming to continue. But Chief Bob Gray says he has reached out to the tribal council.
Is land in trust necessary?
For the 20 acres of land to be put into trust, the Pamunkey must show they had resided in the Hampton Roads area, and more specifically Norfolk. At this point, the Pamunkey does not have to convince the Department of the Interior that the tribe resided in the Norfolk area in order to have gaming.
However, Officials in the city of Norfolk want to see a casino, a tourist attraction that would boost the economy and recognition to the city.
The process standing in their way at this point is the vote of Virginia’s General Assembly. At the end of January, the Virginia Senate Finance Committee voted 12-4 to stop the advancement of casino’s in Virginia until ‘a comprehensive study’ is completed by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission. The deadline for the study is November 1.
Chief Gray told Indian Country Today he supports the decision to conduct a study to ensure things are doing in the correct way.
Once the gaming green light is given after a potential study approval, the Pamunkey will have paved a way for interested parties to have gaming for the first time in the state.
In the interim, Gray told Indian Country Today they look to have the land into trust application completed quickly. “We look forward to having our application completed and submitted in a couple of months.”
Follow Indian Country Today’s associate editor Vincent Schilling (Akwesasne Mohawk) on Twitter - @VinceSchilling