Cecily Hilleary continues her essays on Native America for VOICE of AMERICA.
On a sunny afternoon in May 2016, members of Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian Tribe gathered for a formal photograph celebrating a milestone after three decades of effort: Official recognition by the U.S. government.
When the English arrived in Virginia in the 1600s, the Pamunkey were one of the most powerful tribes of the Powhatan federation led by Chief Wahunsenacawh Powhatan – remembered today as the father of the Pocahontas.
His domains stretched across nearly 10,000 square kilometers; today, the Pamunkey reservation has shrunk to 485 hectares where some 80 members still live. The remaining 200 are scattered across Virginia and beyond.
Gaining federal recognition was a Herculean task, said Pamunkey Chief Robert Grey.
“We see recognition as access to certain government programs that could help us stand on our own two feet as a sovereign nation. It’s just the fact that the government acknowledges us and that we actually got through such a tough procedure,” he said.
The U.S. government recognizes 567 tribes, mostly through historic treaties. Non-treaty tribes who want recognition must petition the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) and meet strict requirements.
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