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Virginia's Pamunkey Tribe Granted Federal Recognition

The federal government Thursday granted recognition to the Pamunkey Indian tribe of Virginia. The tribe, whose members encountered the first permanent English settlers some 400 years ago, had long sought the recognition.

The Pamunkey tribe has just over 200 members, about a quarter of whom live on a reservation near Richmond.

The announcement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs that it would recognize the tribe is "vindication," said tribal Chief Kevin Brown.

"Different groups over the centuries," Brown said, have tried to use "paper genocide to erase us from the historic record. This finally gives us final vindication for a Virginia tribe. We passed all the criteria that all the Western tribes meet, and we're not second-class Indians anymore."

The Pamunkeys are the first Virginia tribe to be recognized by the federal government.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus had opposed recognition because of a now-repealed tribal ban on interracial marriages.

MGM Resorts also opposed recognition, because the company is building a new casino in Maryland, across the Potomac River from Virginia, and fears the Pamunkeys might build their own gambling facility. Brown doesn't rule out the possibility, down the road. "It gives us the opportunity to take a look at that. But that's a separate process, a long, involved process."

Tribal members will now qualify for federal funds for housing, education and health care.

The Pamunkey Tribe counts Pocahontas among its members. The Pamunkeys were part of the Powhatan Confederacy, a group of several tribes that provided food to the early colonists. Other Virginia tribes are also seeking federal recognition.

In a statement, Virginia's two U.S. senators, Democrats Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, said those tribes faced "barriers to recognition despite their role in American history" and called recognition of the Pamunkeys an "important step toward righting this historical wrong."

Brown says there will be a celebration this weekend: "We have a Fourth of July picnic planed already and so I'm sure this will just make it a little bit better. This is a happy day on the reservation."

It's just the second time the Obama administration has granted recognition to a tribe. The Pamunkeys will join the 566 tribes now recognized by the government.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.