Virginia’s Pamunkey Indians have finally won recognition from the federal government that they are a Native American tribe.
The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs announced on Thursday that the Pamunkey tribe’s long quest for recognition has been approved more than 400 years after Pocahontas encountered the first permanent English settlers in what is now the United States
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This makes the tribe of Pocahontas the first in Virginia to receive the coveted designation. Six other Virginia tribes are now also seeking recognition through an act of Congress.
The designation is shared by hundreds of other recognized tribes around the country and allows Native American tribes to receive federal benefits, including education, medical care and housing. The process cost them more than $2 million.
The decision, which goes into effect for the 200-member tribe in 90 days, allows for other special legal privileges such as the ability to sell tax-free goods on tribal land, which is located 25 miles east of the Richmond, the state’s capital. Additionally, the recognition opens the door for the Pamunkey to begin a separate process to open a casino.
“We’re looking at all economic opportunities, but we have nothing on the table right now,” Bob Gray, Pamunkey’s assistant chief, told the Associated Press.
The tribe’s quest for recognition was actively opposed by MGM Resorts, which is currently building a casino of its own in nearby Maryland. As part of its strategy to deny the tribe recognition, MGM pointed out that the Pamunkey had banned interracial marriage during their history, even though the practice was abandoned long ago.
“This is a group that Pocahontas was a member of, so it truly is a historical act,” Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn told the Washington Post in an interview. “This is one of the most solemn duties we have in my job, to determine who the United States has a government-to-government relationship with. It’s really gratifying to go through this rigorous process and be at this stage.”
The Pamunkey Tribe is historically renowned, counting the famed Pocahontas as one of its ancestors. When John Smith and other English settlers arrived to build the first successful American settlement of Jamestown, the Indians warmly received the colonists, granting them food and aid.