QUEST FOR CASINO MAY HINGE ON ‘ANCESTRAL LAND’ CLAIM
NORFOLK — Add another hurdle to the Pamunkey tribe’s ambition to build the state’s first casino in downtown Norfolk:
The Nansemond tribe is objecting, saying the Pamunkey are trying to rewrite history by claiming the parcel they’re negotiating to buy from the city was once a part of Pamunkey
“a n c e st r a l land.”
T h a t ’s a n important designation — a crucial piece of any tribe’s petition to get property accepted into a federal trust, a requirement for gaming or other tribal uses.
The problem here, say the Nansemond, is the parcel where the Pamunkey intend to make their ancestral claim — 20 acres of waterfront next to Harbor Park — is part of Nansemond traditional territory.
And if the Pamunkey officially claim it, the Nansemond probably can’t.
Casino envy has nothing to do with it, the Nansemond say. By law, their tribe can’t engage in gaming anyway. Their complaint is more about heritage and a desire to protect their own federal trust
dreams — the hope of someday acquiring land for other commercial enterprises or housing, maybe even a clinic.
“The Pamunkey Indian Tribe’s claims are a threat to local history as well as the integrity of the process for putting land into trust,” the Nansemond wrote in an email to the newspaper.
Nansemond Chief Samuel Bass says no one consulted with his people before Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander publicly announced the casino plans last month.
“When we heard the Pamunkey were coming here,” Bass said, “it was like dropping a bomb on us.”
Now, the tribe has fired off protests to politicians, federal administrators, gaming directors and the Pamunkey — a swarm of letters that could hold considerable sway in the world of federally recognized tribes and Indian gaming.
It’s a complicated universe, thick with regulations and policies, littered with exceptions — any one of which could tilt the odds of a Pamunkey casino materializing in Norfolk.
When it comes to Virgin- ia natives, that world can also spin on some particularly dusty history: the often hazy writings and maps of European colonists, and the dueling interpretations of those 400-year-old jottings today.
The ancestral claim is only one obstacle for the casino. Even without opposition, a federal trust approval can be a logjam. And permission to game must be sought from the feds after that. The whole process can take a decade.
None in Virginia have ever managed it before. To even be eligible, tribes must first attain the coveted status known as federal recognition — which opens the door to a host of benefits, including economic development opportunities like gaming, even in states where such gambling is normally prohibited.
Virginia has seven tribes who’ve gotten federal recognition, but only recently. Six, however — Nansemond included — obtained it through an act of Congress last year, which required a concession: No gaming.
Only the Pamunkey have achieved it through the standard route at the Bureau of Indian Affairs — in 2015 — which makes them the only Virginia tribe currently in position to even attempt opening a casino.
They’ve found financial backing through Tennessee billionaire Jon Yarbrough, but they’re in need of a suitable location.
Their reservation — one of only two in Virginia — just won’t do for a casino. Its 1,200 acres, located in the countryside about 40 miles east of Richmond, are already in a state trust, which means no gambling is allowed there. Besides, it’s too far off the beaten path to draw enough customers.
The work-around is to purchase property in a prime location, but that land must meet the stipulations for a federal trust: It must be a place historically inhabited by the Pamunkey.
And there’s the rub. With no written history of their own, tribal legacies must lean on the records of the early colonists. Those old maps place Pamunkey turf in the general vicinity of their present-day reservation, more than 80 miles from Norfolk. The south side of Hampton Roads was marked as the land of the Nansemond and Chesapeake tribes. Of those two, only the Nansemond remain.
“This is our ancestral land, our community and the foundation of our future,” the Nansemond chief wrote to the Norfolk mayor.
But the Pamunkey hang their claim on a broader view. Early settlers at Jamestown wrote that tribes in the region were united under a federation run by a paramount chief named Powhatan whose realm, known as Tsenacommaca h, encompassed nearly all of eastern Virginia.
By extension — the same way all of today’s U.S. citizens are Americans no matter where in the country they reside — all natives in Tsenacommaca h were Powhatan, and able to lay claim to the entire region.
The Pamunkey take their argument even a few steps further, insisting their specific tribe lived, farmed, hunted and left its footprints all across Powhatan’s empire, which riles the Nansemond.
“They have never had a presence in this area,” the tribe wrote. “Is the history of the whole state of Virginia up for revision?”
Archaeology can’t settle the dispute. A stone arrowhead or piece of native pottery unearthed in Nor- folk looks much the same as any found in Richmond, said Mike Clem, an archaeologist with Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources.
“The tribes all had a similar culture,” Clem said. “They used the same kind of tools and materials and patterns. There’s no way to tell if an artifact is Pamunkey or Nansemond.”
‘Matter of history’
A lot of money is riding on the question of exactly who lived where four centuries ago. The Pamunkey envision a $700 million resort, spa and casino with a $200 million payroll and a billion-dollar economic impact.
“We are excited about the interest of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in Norfolk,” Mayor Alexander said in his announcement Dec. 19.
Scholars are weighing in. The mayor and the Pamunkey point to Cassandra Newby-Alexander, a history professor at Norfolk State University. Her niche is African-American studies, but she has done some research on colonial history.
“I do not at all consider myself to be an expert on Virginia Indians,” she said, “but from my reading, the tribes did a lot of intermingling. They traded with each other all over this region. They shared the waterways and hunting grounds and traveled through the landscape.”
Under that scenario, Newby-Alexander said, she can understand why the Pamunkey consider the entire region their home range, even if the tribe’s literal home was only a small part of it.
“I guess it’s all in how you define it,” she said, “but I believe the government rules call for looking at both.”
Helen Rountree’s research is more extensive. A professor emeritus of anthropology at Old Dominion University, Rountree has been studying Virginia Indians since 1969, producing numerous academic books on the subject.
“I’ve scoured the records,” she said, and found nothing that indicates the Pamunkey ever strayed far from their own territory, near their headwaters of the York River.
Even common lore often has no solid roots, she said. An example: Monkey Island in the Currituck Sound. It’s long been held that the island got its name because Pamunkey Indians frequented the place, but Rountree has never found any mention of such visits in authentic records.
Critics point out that Rountree is an honorary member of the Nansemond and could be biased on that tribe’s behalf. She counters that she’s also an honorary member of the Upper Mattaponi.
“I will not lie for anybody,” she said. “I call the records as I see them and let the chips fall where they may.”
One thing seems certain: the farther land is from a tribe’s reservation, the harder it is to make a successful pitch for a federal trust.
“It’s rare,” said Kathryn Rand of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy at the University of North Dakota. “Legally and politically, it’s very difficult for a tribe to gain approval for an off-reservation casino and it’s even rarer for the casino to come to fruition.”
Since the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988, fewer than 30 applications have been submitted by tribes for off-reservation casinos. Of those, less than a dozen got approval to move forward and only a handful are operating casinos, Rand said.
There are ways around the administrative process. Congress can direct the interior secretary to approve a trust application. Or a federal court can rule the tribe has a valid claim to the land.
But typically, Rand said, “there’s no doubt we’re talking years.”
And then there’s the Nansemond’s grievance. In the past, the feds have given weight to such things.
So far, the Nansemond say, they’ve had no response from Norfolk’s mayor. Sen. Tim Kaine, however, has agreed to a meeting.
“We’re not attacking the Pamunkey,” said Bass, the chief. “It’s a matter of what’s recorded in history.”
With little else to go on, Virginia tribes must depend on the writings and maps of early European colonists to document their own history. This one is a copy of a map sketched by Capt.John Smith in the early 1600s.