What will indigenous sovereignty look like in the Trump era?

Photos courtesy of author.

As you approach the Pamunkey Reservation, something completely out-of-place greets you: teepees. Located on the Powhatan Trail, a narrow two-lane road with no posted speed limits, two teepees, divided by a totem pole, stand alongside a reconstructed log house.

The Pamunkey, and the once powerful Powhatan chiefdom that they led, never lived in teepees. In the Chesapeake Bay region, such relics are historically anachronistic. The Plains tribes used teepees for their abodes, but in our time the teepee has become a symbol of the generic Indian––it’s what White people think of, and expect to see, when they visit Native communities.

The Pamunkey are far from generic. Last year, the federal government finally recognized the Pamunkey’s unique and continuous status as a sovereign nation. After three decades of trying, the Pamunkey became the 567th federally recognized Native American tribe, and the first federally recognized tribe in Virginia.

The federal recognition process is an arduous one, and now some are worried that the Trump administration may threaten the hard-won rights of the Pamunkey and other federally recognized tribes. To understand how these communities may be newly imperiled, it’s important to know what federal recognition entails, and how colonial and corporate interests have sought to preempt it for centuries.


Photos courtesy of author.

The Pamunkey Reservation––about 1,200 acres of land an hour’s drive east of Richmond––abuts the picturesque Pamunkey River. The rolling farmland that dominates the reservation landscape lay fallow when I visited, punctuated by disused barns and rusted tractors from a bygone era. Pamunkey tribal members live and work both on and off the reservation, but for those 200-odd people who live on the “Rez” federal recognition holds the possibility for a bright new future.

Federal recognition will make it possible for tribal members to qualify for programs administered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) that address pressing needs, especially in healthcare, housing, and education. Docket No. IBIA 16-003, which affirmed the federal government’s recognition of the Pamunkey tribe, may have attracted little attention in the mainstream media, but for Pamunkeys, the decision could have profound socioeconomic ramifications.

The federal recognition process is a complex and slow one. Since the current process was initiated in 1978, only 18 tribes have been granted federal recognition, while 33 have been denied, and 13 remain pending. Many of these cases have dragged on for decades.

That's in large part due to a rule that, until last year, required tribal members who petitioned for recognition to provide evidence of their tribe's genealogical lineage, community existence, and political authority dating back to its first contact with Europeans. For some, that meant gathering hundreds of years worth of records. Now petitioners only have to go back as far as 1900.

For the Pamunkey, the final six months were perhaps the most harrowing in the drawn-out process of acquiring federal recognition.

Back in July 2015, the Pamunkey received the BIA’s initial ruling in favor of granting federal recognition. “We’re happy, we’re elated,” Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown told reporters.

That elation proved fleeting. In October 2015, the BIA received a “Request for Reconsideration” from Stand Up for California!, an anti-gambling group, challenging the Pamunkey’s newly won legal status. Stand Up challenged the decision based on a flawed assumption that Native American tribes seek federal recognition in order to lay claim to the lucrative tribal gaming industry.

Based on that same assumption, MGM National Harbor, a project of the multi-billion dollar hotel and casino company MGM International Resorts, joined the fray in order to squelch potential competition. These strange bedfellows collaborated on numerous attempts to derail the Pamunkey tribe's petition.

With Stand Up's “Request for Reconsideration,” the BIA's ruling was sent into a sort of appeals process. The news shocked tribal members. Pamunkey leaders issued a gag order, prohibiting tribal members from speaking to the media, as Pamunkey leaders and their lawyers prepared for yet another legal battle.

The battle ended in January 2016, when the BIA issued its findings on the “Request for Reconsideration.” For the second time in less than six months, the Pamunkey became the 567th federally recognized Native American tribe.

The story of how the Pamunkey won federal recognition is a tale that is centuries in the making. In fact, their ultimate success hinged on the astute political leadership of a Pamunkey woman who brokered a critical deal more than three hundred years ago.


Photos courtesy of author.

The Pamunkey Reservation is a fragment of a once much larger homeland. The Pamunkey tribe was part of the vast Powhatan Chiefdom, a phrase coined by anthropologists to denote the loose coalition of more than thirty tribes who lived on about 16,000 square miles of land in the Chesapeake Bay region, and whose ancestors inhabited the area for at least 10,000 years.

When the English arrived in what became Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, they stepped into this chiefdom, led at that time by Wahunsenacawh, or Chief Powhatan, a Pamunkey. His daughter, Matoaka (known to the English by her nickname, Pocahontas), earned notoriety among the British for her marriage to the colonist John Rolfe.

According to John Smith, the Englishman many historians credit with saving the Virginia colony, Chief Powhatan governed from his principle residence at Werowocomoco on the York River. Smith, a braggart and well-known liar, insisted that Chief Powhatan ruled over his people like a monarch.

Smith’s assessment of the Powhatan did not adequately (or accurately) account for the chiefdom’s social and cultural complexity, or its highly developed political system. With a total population of approximately 25,000 at its peak, the Powhatan chiefdom’s most popular districts included the Mattaponi, Youghtanund, Arrohattoc, Appomattoc, and Pamunkey. Local chiefs (who could be men or women), oversaw the daily governance of each district and were responsible to the paramount chief for the payment of annual tribute.

The political cohesiveness and economic prosperity of the matrilineal Powhatan chiefdom was undermined by settler violence and frontier expansion between the 1620s and 1640s. Three wars left the Powhatan chiefdom’s population at around 3,000 by the end of the 1640s. At the same time, the settler population ballooned to approximately 30,000.

To the English, the Natives seemed to be withering away before their eyes. To hasten this process, English officials adopted a “divide and conquer” strategy. They used different treaties with different tribes to break up the centralized political power of the Powhatan chiefdom.

By the end of the 1640s, the strategy had gained momentum. When a Pamunkey leader named Totopotomoy replaced the former paramount chief in 1649, the English happily felt that he represented the interests only of the Pamunkey, and not of the many other tribes that made up the the Powhatan Chiefdom.

Totopotomoy's sudden death, however, gave rise to one of the most important women in Virginia's history, (though she is little remembered outside the Pamunkey community) : Cockacoeske.

The English referred to Cockacoeske, Totopotomoy’s widow, as the “Queen of the Pamunkey.” A relative of the late Chief Powhatan, Cockacoeske governed the Powhatan chiefdom for 30 years. She proved to be a brilliant political tactician, using colonial Virginia’s political system in an effort to undermine the English policy of divide and conquer from the inside out. However, disease, loss of territory, and continuing English violence stymied Cockacoeske’s vision.

The worst violence against the Pamunkey during Cockacoeske’s leadership occurred in 1676 when disgruntled and landless frontiersmen united under Nathaniel Bacon. Bacon’s rebellion unleashed anti-Native racism and a storm of violence against the Pamunkey and other Virginia Natives.

In March, Bacon led an infamous attack on the Pamunkey that resulted in the capture of small children and the brutal murders of elderly Pamunkey women. A subsequent raid by Bacon’s men saw 45 Pamunkeys captured. Cockacoeske, who narrowly avoided capture, proved instrumental in restoring peace to Anglo-Pamunkey relations following Bacon’s death and the collapse of the rebellion that bore his name.

Cockacoeske’s leadership in the face of settler violence ultimately became the foundation upon which the Pamunkey’s federal recognition application was built three centuries later. Her diplomatic efforts culminated in a critical piece of evidence in the Pamunkey federal recognition case: the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677.

The treaty declared that “each Indian King and Queen have equall power to govern their owne people and none to have greater power than other except the Queen of the Pamunkey to whom several scattered Indian Nations doe now againe owne their antient subjection, and are agreed to come in and plant themselves under her power … and are to keep and observe the same towards the said Queen in all things as her Subjects, as well as toward the English.”

In other words, Cockacoeske’s leadership secured English recognition of the Pamunkey’s sovereignty.

This afforded legal protection to the Pamunkey homeland where eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth-century Pamunkey’s farmed, nurtured their traditions and cultures, and returned after migrating away for employment. It was this treaty that the Pamunkey petitioners pointed to as evidence in their quest for federal recognition.


Photos courtesy of author.

Euro Americans have a long history of distorting, ignoring, or rejecting the authenticity of Native American identity. During the struggle over the Pamunkey’s federal recognition, MGM National Harbor and Stand Up for California! consistently attempted to cast doubt over the validity of the Pamunkey’s historical evidence, questioned the political process involved in federal acknowledgement cases, and even dismissed modern-day Pamunkey’s as the descendants of African Americans.

These attacks came from a playbook that has been used by many champions of corporate interests, including Donald Trump. In the early ‘90s, Trump waged a campaign against the Native gaming industry as his own casinos were coming out of bankruptcy. He slandered tribes in media appearances, paid for advertising that echoed his accusations, and said in testimony at a Congressional hearing that members of the Mashantucket Pequot tribe “don’t look like Indians to me.”

Unlike Trump, Stand Up and MGM made an effort to mask the racism undergirding their attacks. Their strategy? Portray the Pamunkey as racist.

MGM and Stand Up took issue with the tribe’s marriage laws from the 1880s in a 39-page letter the pair submitted to the BIA in July, 2014. Those laws, which prohibited marriage between Pamunkeys and all races other than Indians and Whites, were drafted in an era in which scores of states in the South and West had similar anti-intermarriage laws. For the Pamunkey, the laws were a survival tactic during a period when state officials attempted to define Virginia’s Native people out of existence by categorizing anyone with “one-drop of Negro blood” as Black.

Virginia lawmakers had been attempting to define Native communities out of existence for decades. In the early eighteenth century, for example, colonial lawmakers moved to define Virginia Natives as “free people of colour.” In the early twentieth century, the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics successfully lobbied the state legislature for the passage of the Racial Integrity Act and coordinated efforts to define Virginia Natives as “colored.” According to the agency’s director at the time, it was almost impossible to find an “authentic Indian” in Virginia.

These efforts failed. The Pamunkey, who’ve maintained their reservation and sense of identity through all of this tumult, have not only survived, they continue to nurture their culture and communities in the twenty-first century.


In the months after the Pamunkey initially received word of their federal recognition in July 2015, Cheryl Schmit, the director of Stand Up for California!, maintained that the Pamunkey case was not properly evaluated. In email correspondence, Schmit told me, “Recognition of a group that does not legitimately qualify is more than just an unwarranted windfall for the group, it would be fundamentally inconsistent with our system of government under the Constitution.”

Here’s the rub for groups opposed to tribal sovereignty and federal recognition. They believe that Native Americans get too many tax breaks, too many freebies from the federal government, all of which––in their view––artificially advantage Native people and disadvantage White Americans.

The Pamunkey case was not the first time Stand Up opposed federal recognition for a Native American tribe, or railed against amendments to federal laws pertaining to indigenous communities. In 2013, Schmit attacked the Lumbee tribe in North Carolina for lobbying federal lawmakers to change the Bald Eagle Protection Act.

The use of eagle feathers in Lumbee culture is as old as the tribe, but because the Lumbee are not federally recognized, their use of the feathers places them in violation of the law. Schmit supported this prohibition on the Lumbee, remarking that “Today it’s eagle feathers. What will it be tomorrow, a request for racial preference for a casino?”

Schmit’s glib reference to “racial preference” is political red-meat to Americans who feel affirmative action has run amok, or that the political and economic deck is stacked against them while minorities reap the benefits of government subsidies and legal loopholes.

These are specious and cynical allegations; they’re also politically effective, as Trump’s ascendancy has shown.

This strategy played out in Stand Up’s “Request for Reconsideration,” which the group filed with the BIA in October 2015. In it, Stand Up claimed that the Pamunkey petitioners were not Native American but in fact African American––a curious claim given Stand Up’s previous accusations of Pamunkey racism toward African Americans in its late-nineteenth-century marriage laws.

Stand Up pointed to a dozen examples, including that of Ned Bradby, an ancestor to some of the Pamunkey members who petitioned for tribal recognition. The federal census of 1830 lists Bradby as “colored.” His only claim to being Pamunkey, the request added, was that he “moved to the old Indian Town in King William County about 1830.”

The argument seemed pretty clear; Bradby, and his brother, William, were not Pamunkey but mixed-race African Americans. As such, they and their descendants have no claim to being recognized by the federal government as Native American.

The problem with this argument is that it assumed the empirical evidence was unimpeachable; it wasn’t. In fact, census data from the nineteenth century is deeply flawed.

Ned Bradby’s case exposes these flaws. In 1830 and 1840, census data shows that the census taker thought Bradby was a “free white person,” not “colored,” as Stand Up claims. However, in 1850 and 1860, Bradby’s race shifted, the census taker listing him as “mulatto.” It’s not until 1870 that Bradby’s “race” is listed as “Indian” in the federal census.

This is because prior to 1850, the Census Bureau enumerated two racial groups: “white” and “Negro.” It wasn’t until mid-century that the Census Bureau added a third category, that of “mulatto,” which was defined so broadly as to give it virtually no historical meaning. More significantly to the Pamunkey federal recognition case, Bradby had no power to define his racial identity when the census taker came knocking. In other words, his “race” was not for him to decide, but depended on how the census taker perceived him.

Stand Up’s “Request for Reconsideration” lacked these historical nuances. It’s arguments amounted to little more than an ideological screed against the Pamunkey in particular, and the federal recognition process more generally.


Photos courtesy of author.

If the Pamunkey struggle for federal recognition reveals anything, it’s that colonialism continues to impact Native American people in the twenty-first century. The legal, political, and public relations battles also remind us how Native people, who’ve never lost sight of their indigeneity, continue to face unfounded questions, challenges, and suspicions about the authenticity of their identity as Native Americans.

What will federal recognition mean for the Pamunkey? It should ensure that the United States government recognizes the nationhood of the Pamunkey, empower Pamunkey tribal government, and make the Pamunkey eligible for federally funded programs through the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

It isn’t clear yet how Trump’s presidency may impact these outcomes, though his advisers have already proposed to privatize reservation lands, and Indigenous journalists have expressed concern that this administration might try to undo federal recognition of tribes altogether.

One thing that won’t change is the sense of community and pride in tribal identity that Pamunkey members and other indigenous peoples feel. That existed long before the English arrived in Jamestown in 1607, and it remains today.