POLITICS
07/08/2015 03:42 pm ET Updated Jul 08, 2015

Pocahontas' Descendants Get Official Recognition As Government Reforms Rules

Hulton Archive via Getty Images

From Christopher Columbus' first bootprints in the New World -- where he declared that the people he met were "Indians" because he thought he was somewhere else -- to the current debate about a Washington, D.C. football team’s racist name, the controversy over how -- or if -- indigenous peoples are recognized has become an enduring theme in American history, culture and politics.

The lack of recognition can cost Native American communities mightily in terms of legal rights, social services, economic opportunities and cultural preservation. Unlike other racial and ethnic identities, “Indian” is legally defined as being a member of a federally recognized tribe that maintains a government-to-government relationship with the United States. To boot, the process for a tribe to gain recognition is complex and can seem arbitrary, as two recent decisions demonstrate.

Last week, after decades of deliberation, the Department of the Interior (DOI) accepted the petition for federal recognition of one renowned Indian nation in Virginia while denying the petition of another from Washington. Just days before handing down these decisions, the department announced plans to overhaul what it described as a “broken” federal recognition process altogether.

On Thursday, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe won its nearly 35-year battle for federal recognition, becoming the first federally recognized tribe in the state of Virginia.

As descendants of the Powhatan Chiefdom that met the first English settlers at Jamestown in 1607, the Pamunkey are perhaps the best-known indigenous group in what is now the United States. Their storied ancestor, Pocahontas, has become a mythological figure in American history and culture.

Pocahontas supposedly saved the settler John Smith from execution by her father, Chief Powhatan, and then married another settler, John Rolfe. She traveled with Rolfe to England in 1616 where the English treated her as royalty, a subject of curiosity and a living advertisement of the civilized savage. Pocahontas ultimately died on a return voyage to her homeland in Virginia just a year later.

Two decades after the release of a Disney movie about their legendary ancestor, the Pamunkey received federal recognition from the DOI, granting their tribe limited rights of self-government and self-determination that will take effect 90 days after the decision. The Pamunkey are now legally entitled to establish their own government and criteria for tribal membership, levy taxes and create and enforce civil and criminal laws on the reservation. They can also access federal funding for housing, health care and education that is specifically designated for Native people. They will also be able to pursue a casino in the future, if they choose to. The decision makes the Pamunkey the 567th federally recognized tribe in the United States.

On the same day, the Duwamish Tribe in Washington State lost its suit for recognition, which has been ongoing since 1977. The Duwamish, who are the first peoples of Seattle, count the famous Chief Si’ahl -- after whom the city is named -- among their ancestors. The Duwamish signed the Point Elliott Treaty of 1855 ceding their land to the U.S. government, but unlike other signatories of the treaty, they never received fishing and hunting rights or a reservation. The most recent ruling said the tribe could not "demonstrate continual existence" as defined in the current rules.

The rules governing the federal acknowledgement process for Indian nations will receive their first overhaul in 37 years, the DOI announced last week, at the same time as it issued decisions to recognize the Pamunkey and deny the Duwamish.

Under the prior rules, tribes petitioning for federal recognition had to submit mounds of paperwork and wait decades for a decision. This included proving that the tribe had exercised control over its members from first contact, as early as 1789 in some instances. Tribes were also required to prove that they'd been identified as Indian by external sources, such as white anthropologists and governments, as far back as 1900, "a time when it was dangerous to be Indian," Kevin Washburn, associate secretary of the DOI told the Associated Press. Under the rules used for the past 37 years, the department has recognized the petitions of 18 tribes and denied 35 -- including the Pamunkey and Duwamish.

Under the new regulations, the DOI moved the date required for tribes to prove their historical continuity to 1934, the year that the Roosevelt administration passed the Indian Reorganization Act. The new rules also provide greater transparency by making information about petitions for federal recognition available to the public.

Despite objections of lawmakers and other tribes who already have federal recognition, the Obama administration is pushing forward with the new regulations, which Washburn called "long overdue" in a DOI press release. The new rules will make it easier for petitioning tribes to receive federal recognition.

But for the Duwamish, who actually received federal recognition in 2001 during the last days of the Clinton administration, only to have the ruling overturned by President George W. Bush, Thursday’s decision marks yet another setback.

"In the eyes and mind of our people, the Duwamish Tribe does exist," said Duwamish Tribal Chairwoman Cecile Hansen, the great-great-great-grandniece of Chief Si’alh, in a statement to the West Seattle Herald. "We are extremely disappointed (yet again) in the BIA's ‘dehumanizing’ decision to do away with our existence according to the rulings that were made in the past."

Denying the Duwamish federal recognition leaves the tribe in a disadvantaged position. They will not be afforded the limited opportunity to govern and develop like other Indian nations. Their land will not be held in trust by the federal government, and can be taken from them at any time. They will not have access to the basic services provided to other Native Americans in return for the loss of land and life upon which this country is built. In fact, in the eyes of the law, they are not Indians.

Aside from the DOI process, the only other way for an Indian nation to have its rights recognized is through an act of Congress.

Disney movies and cities named after famed leaders don’t count.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article misidentified the football team with the offensive name. The team is in Washington, D.C., not Washington state.

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