MICHAEL BASTASCH Contributor 2:30 PM 10/01/2014
Black lawmakers are furious that the Obama administration is in the process of acknowledging a Native American tribe that still has laws prohibiting its members from marrying African Americans.
Eleven members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Attorney General Eric Holder, criticizing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for planning on recognizing the Pamunkey tribe — a small tribe of about 200 members based in King William County, Va.
CBC lawmakers say the tribe has a long history of “discriminatory policies against African Americans.” Pamunkey law going back at least two centuries bans inter-marriage “with any person except those with white or Indian blood.” CBC also notes there “is no indication that the group has changed its regulations in regards to its prohibition of marriage between Pamunkey members and African Americans.”
“These findings… are very disturbing not only because BIA fails to express any condemnation, but BIA effectively condones the Pamunkey for its discriminatory practices,” CBC lawmakers wrote. “We find the Pamunkey’s practices and the BIA’s rationalizations of them offensive and believe they are unacceptable as a basis for federal action recognizing national/tribal sovereignty.”
The Pamunkey is famous for being the tribe to which Pocahontas belonged, but the tribe does not consider “all her descendants as tribal members” nor do they let “individuals be eligible for membership simply because of this lineage, no matter how well-documented.”
The tribe first submitted its petition to be federally recognized in 2009, a process that can take decades, but in January the BIA announced it planned on formally recognizing the Pamunkey — a move that has sparked fierce opposition.
Federal recognition has been opposed by gas stations, retailers and convenience stores because it would cut into their businesses. Why? The Pamunkey would not have to have sales taxes on their products, meaning people could cross into tribal lands to avoid paying taxes on cigarettes and alcohol.
Formal recognition would not only allow the Pamunkey greater control of parts of Virginia, it would also allow the tribe to begin the process to “engage in casino gambling,” according to the CBC letter.
The casino giant MGM Resorts International and “Stand Up For California!” — a nonprofit that focuses on the impact of Indian gaming on California communities — teamed up to oppose the BIA’s recognition of the Pamunkeys.
Stand Up and MGM not only brought up the Pamunkey’s ban on marrying blacks, but also said the BIA “incorrectly concluded that the Petitioner’s evidence satisfied existing regulatory criteria.”
Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown says any comment, positive or negative, will just slow the process of becoming Virginia’s first federally recognized tribe.
“Currently, Virginia does not have federally recognized Tribes or tribal gaming. So, clearly yes, the inevitable possibility of a casino opening in Virginia is a concern,” Cheryl Schmit, Stand Up’s director, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “This group is not even complying with the Indian Civil Rights Act and other applicable federal law. Why would the BIA recommend that a group that flagrantly violates the civil rights of its members be granted the significant privileges and powers of federal recognition?”
Interestingly enough, MGM got approval from Prince George’s County to build a $925 million casino and hotel at National Harbor, Maryland — only about a two-hour drive from where the Pamunkey could potentially build their own casino. As part of the agreement with the county, MGM created an “employment target of 40 and 50 percent among county residents and veterans” as well as goals to get “20 to 30 percent” of its contracting from minority-owned businesses.
MGM Mirage, the company’s flagship Las Vegas casino, is listed as a supporter of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation — donating between $1,000 and $4,999 to support various programs. MGM Resorts International also lists CBC Foundation as a “diversity partner” for its Diversity Initiative.
So What’s Up With The Pamunkey Marriage Laws?
The BIA’s in-depth analysis on the tribal history of the Pamunkey points out that the tribe had a series of discriminatory rules and social norms which demonstrates “the group maintaining a collective Indian identity” throughout its history.
One such law was its prohibition against marrying blacks as well as whites and being able to live on tribal lands. The BIA notes that the tribes “prohibition against White husbands living on the reservation kept many young families from settling there” and the group “gradually softened these provisions, and eventually voted to allow White husbands to live there in 2012.” But BIA also notes that there is no indication the tribe has changed its ban on black spouses.
One factor the BIA says contributed to this was the attempts by King County resident to classify Pamunkeys as “mulatto” or “Negro” during the pre-Civil War era. BIA says this was because of the near unanimous support for the Union among the Pamunkey tribe. BIA notes that the Pamunkey tribe’s town and the Mattaponi reservations were even called “haunts of vice” and “the ready asylum of runaway slaves” — a major threat to the slaveholding south.
The Pamunkey “protests over being perceived as ‘Negro’ or ‘Mulatto’ rather than Indian indicates an ongoing concern shared among the group’s members,” says the BIA. “This information provides evidence of strong patterns of discrimination or other social distinction by non-members.”
Marriage partners also heavily influenced whether the Pamunkey could live on among their kinsmen or not. For example, a woman could only marry another Pamunkey or Native American if she still wanted to live on tribal lands. Pamunkey men, however, could marry white women and still live among the tribe.
“While the record does not contain examples of people being explicitly expelled from the group due to their marriage to a Black person, this prohibition appears to have run so deep within the group that those who did may have just left without argument,” BIA notes. “Alternatively, if these arguments did take place, they were not recorded in the minutes or other records.”
Ironically, the first interracial marriage recorded in North America was between Pocahontas, a Pamunkey, and John Rolfe, an English tobacco farmer, in April 1614. Together they had a son named Thomas Rolfe.