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Virginia Native American tribe granted federal recognition

July 2, 2015

NORFOLK, Virginia (AP) — The Department of Interior on Thursday granted federal recognition to a Native American tribe in Virginia more than 400 years after the first permanent English settlers encountered it.

The federal designation of the 200-member Pamunkey tribe allows it to receive certain federal benefits on medical care, housing and education, among other things. The Pamunkey are only the second tribe to be granted recognition since President Barack Obama took office.

The tribe was considered the most powerful one in the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom, which greeted the English settlers at Jamestown, and claims Pocahontas among its lineage.

Nationwide, there are 566 federal recognized tribes, and hundreds more want to join their ranks.

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus opposed recognition of the Pamunkey because they said the tribe had a history of banning interracial marriages with blacks. The tribe has said the ban was repealed in 2012, two years after it had submitted materials to the Interior Department in its bid for recognition.

The Interior Department first said the Pamunkey met its requirements for recognition in January 2014 and a final decision was expected in March, but that was delayed after public opposition arose.

In documents released Thursday, the Interior Department wrote that the Indian Civil Rights Act only applies to federally recognized tribes, and thus the intermarriage ban wasn’t applicable to the Pamunkey at the time of its application. It also notes that the department examines applications in light of historical context.

Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown told the CBC in a letter that the intermarriage ban was rooted in Virginia’s culture of racism, where “racial intermixture was raised repeatedly as a rationale to divest us of our reservation and our Indian status.”

Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act made it illegal for whites and non-whites to marry, and the registrar of the state’s Bureau of Vital Statistics, Dr. Walter Plecker, launched an aggressive campaign at the time to prevent the “mongrelization” of the white “master race” by what he called “pseudo-Indians.”

Plecker believed Indians wanted to ‘escape Negro status’ in order to attend white schools and marry whites. Plecker ordered that Indians be classified as “colored” on birth and marriage certificates and threatened doctors and midwives with jail for noncompliance.

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