House approves bill for Va. tribes: Sovereignty proposal now moves to Senate; Webb, Warner yet to take position

WASHINGTON -- Six Virginia Indian tribes won a major victory in their struggle for federal recognition when the House of Representatives passed a sovereignty bill yesterday.

House Democratic leaders brought the bill up as an international spotlight shines on the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. Some of the tribes' ancestors met the Europeans who settled there.

Yesterday, Indian backers portrayed an epic saga of the tribes' survival in the face of staggering injustice. Critics in turn raised a specter of casino gambling.

The two sides clashed emotionally at first, but the critics, after losing a procedural vote 228-186, left the chamber and didn't return. The final vote was cast by voice with fewer than 20 lawmakers present.

Next the bill for sovereignty of the six tribes must undergo scrutiny in the Senate, where its fate is unclear.

Chief Stephen R. Adkins of the Chickahominy tribe, who watched the debate from the House gallery, talked of pride and sorrow.

"Today is historic," said Adkins, who only days ago was among chiefs meeting with Queen Elizabeth II in Richmond.

"It's very significant in the life of Virginia Indians to have the House pass this recognition bill that essentially, in the eyes of the federal government, restores our sovereign status," he said.

It marked the first time that their bid for federal recognition, first sponsored by Rep. James P. Moran, D-8th, in 2000, had advanced to the House floor. And it was the first time in more than 20 years the House had voted on granting a tribe sovereign status, according to Moran's office.

To advance their bill, the Virginia tribes recently agreed to give up their federal authority to operate casino gambling. Reginald W. Tupponce Jr., an Upper Mattaponi who watched the House debate, found it tough to sacrifice what he considers a piece of sovereignty.

"It was very hard to give up," Tupponce said. "But this is kind of a balancing act," he added, and gaining sovereignty from Congress would put the Virginia tribes on a level footing with 562 others nationwide for federal aid.

Moran portrayed the tribes as victims of centuries of mistreatment and injustice. They were hobbled in seeking federal recognition through an administrative route because white supremacist state officials worked to manipulate or erase their records, he said.

"It's four hundred years overdue," Moran said of granting government-to-government status with the United States for the six tribes.

But Rep. Christopher Shays, R-Conn., maintained the Virginia tribes should have followed the administrative route. He also cautioned that the bill's gambling curbs might not withstand a court test.

"Gambling will be alive and well," Shays warned.

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings, D-Fla., thundered in retort that Americans are "going to gamble their brains out. But it ain't the Indians' fault!"

Rep. Frank R. Wolf, R-10th, had long helped stall the bill when Republicans controlled the House. Yesterday, Wolf said he would support the revised bill "because I believe it represents a significant step forward" in protecting against casino gambling.

Neither Virginia Sen. Jim Webb, a Democrat, nor John W. Warner, a Republican, have taken a position on the revised bill. Warner sounded a skeptical note yesterday, although he said he wanted to study the bill closely.

He would not want, Warner said, to "allow a measure to pass which would open the way for gambling in Virginia against the wishes of the majority of the people and such legislation as the General Assembly may pass."

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said the House vote "is a major step towards reconciling an historic wrong for Virginia and the nation."

The tribes recognized under the bill are the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemond and Monacan Indian Nation. Two tribes with reservations, the Mattaponi and Pamunkey, are not participating in the bill.


Contact staff writer Peter Hardin at or (202) 662-7669.