Kenneth Branham remembers when it was illegal to be an Indian in Amherst County, Va. From 1924 until 1967, the Commonwealth of Virginia operated under the Racial Purity Law, which criminalized interracial marriage and set up a caste system based on race.
The law’s main author was state registrar Walter Plecker. Plecker declared that only two races existed in the state: white and black. Anyone claiming to be Indian could be jailed under the law. Plecker went so far as to alter Monacan birth certificates in the Amherst County courthouse to prove his assertion, marking out “Indian” and replacing it with “Negro” or “Mullatto.” Later, the Virginia Eugenics Records office would declare the Monacans of Amherst County “mixed-race degenerates.”
When Branham, 49, came of school age, the only education available to him was St. Mark’s Episcopal mission school. It provided classes up to the sixth grade. When desegregation finally came to Amherst County in the 1960s, Branham was one of the first Monacan to attend public school. He graduated in 1972, the second Monacan in the county to earn a public school diploma.
Now Branham is principle chief of the Monacan Nation, and he hopes to lead his tribe to federal recognition.
Federal recognition creates a “government-to-government relationship” between the United States and recognized Indian tribes. Recognized tribes have a constitution and a representative tribal government and can operate federal programs for their members. But it’s not easy to get that recognition.
“Documenting is where it falls apart,” says Bureau of Indian Affairs spokesperson Nedra Darling. Many groups who petition for recognition are not well-funded and lack the “people power” to find the required evidence, she says.
In order to be recognized by the federal government, tribes must meet several criteria. Essentially, a group must prove its descent from one historical tribe or confederation of tribes and the members of the tribe must be able to trace their descent to tribal rolls and other records dating back to 1900.
But these rolls can be problematic because whites sometimes bribed their way onto the rolls to get land, says Sam Cook, coordinator of American Indian studies at Virginia Tech. It’s also difficult to prove descent from one tribe because “most of the Indian groups existing today are products of Diaspora,” he says.
Spanish explorers first arrived in what is the present-day Southeastern United States in 1521. These early explorations were small, under-funded and not particularly successful, until 1539 when Hernando de Soto began a four-year expedition in what is now Florida. He traveled through most of the Southeast, including the Southern Appalachian mountains, naming them for the Appalachee people, a tribe of Muskhogean Indians who lived near the Gulf of Mexico.
The Spanish brought European diseases like smallpox and influenza with them and these epidemics combined with warfare and colonization destroyed the great Mississippian chiefdoms of the Southeast. By 1568, most Indian towns de Soto had encountered had been reduced to bands of refugees. These refugees reorganized themselves into the major tribes of the 18th and 19th centuries — Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw and Choctaw, among others. But disease, war and continued white settlement would disrupt and depopulate these tribes by 1800.
The Monacan tribe of Amherst County is a remnant of a large entity that dominated the land between the Virginia piedmont and the Blue Ridge Mountains, Cook says. “They are probably descended from Tutelos or Saponi people.” Today the Monacan tribe has 1,500 members and is recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia.
State recognition can be arbitrary, Cook says, but Virginia and North Carolina are generally considered to have the most strict state recognition requirements in the country. Virginia’s criteria for recognition are very similar to federal criteria, but Branham says state recognition provides no basic benefits.
Today eight tribes are recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia – Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monacan, Nansemond, Rappahannock, Mattaponi, Upper Mattaponi and Pamunkey. Six of these tribes have pooled their resources to create Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life, a political lobby and fundraising organization.
Branham says the Monacans can trace their existence back to at least 1750, but the group has been a cohesive tribe living in Virginia for thousands of years. “We have the proof, but we have to play the politics and that’s expensive,” he says. “We needed a mouthpiece to speak to Congress, and no one tribe could cover the expense.”
It’s uncommon for Indian tribes to work together for recognition because tribes compete for the same government resources. North Carolina is a case in point.
With a tribal membership of approximately 45,000, the Lumbee tribe of Robeson County, N.C., is the largest Indian group east of the Mississippi River. Although the group has records documenting their existence as a cohesive tribe for at least 200 years, they are not recognized by the federal government.
In 1956, Congress passed the Lumbee Act, formally declaring the Lumbee an Indian tribe, but the recognition came during the “termination era.” Between 1953-1968 the legal status of over 100 tribes was terminated. The Lumbee Act simultaneously recognized and terminated the tribal rights of the Lumbee.
In the mid-1980s, an effort was mounted to amend the Lumbee Act to allow the tribe to apply for federal recognition. But the federally-recognized Eastern Band of Cherokees opposed recognition of the Lumbee and lobbied hard in congress to prevent that recognition.
The Lumbee have been recognized in some form by the state of North Carolina since 1885 and through that recognition receive some money and services from the federal government, including housing funds. But the Lumbee need federal recognition and soon, says Lumbee tribal government officer Ruth Locklear.
Robeson County, like many areas of the country, is suffering from high unemployment, and no job means no health insurance for many of the Lumbee. Locklear says federal recognition will allow the Lumbee to provide health care for its members, but she fears cultural change may be the greatest loss if recognition is not forthcoming.
“There are no jobs coming and parents are having to say to their children: ‘You have to leave if you want to make it.’ But the young people don’t want to leave,” she says. “The Lumbee have a great sense of territory and a connection to the lands.” Locklear believes federal recognition of the Lumbee, who account for one third of the county’s population, would help the economy of the entire county and prevent a mass exodus of young people.
Branham says federal recognition would open doors for Monacan youth by providing scholarships and low-interest business loans, but he has a simpler motivation for federal recognition. “For me, it would just be the recognition that we’re Indians,” he says.
Today, the federal government recognizes 550 American Indian tribes, but only four of those tribes are based in the Southeastern United States: Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, Poarch Band of Creeks in Alabama, Catawba Indian Nation in South Carolina, and Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. Seventy-one tribes in seven Southeastern states are currently seeking federal recognition.Criteria for federal recognition
• Must have been identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900.
• A predominant portion of the petitioning group must comprise a distinct community and must have existed as a community from historical times until the present.
• The group must have maintained political influence or authority over its members as an autonomous entity from historical times until the present.
• A copy of the group’s present governing document including its membership criteria must be submitted.
• Tribal member ship must consist of individuals who descend from a historical Indian tribe or from historical Indian tribes which combined and functioned as a single autonomous political entity.
• The group must be composed principally of persons who are not members of any acknowledged North American Indian tribe.