Virginia’s First Casino No Guarantee as Nansemond Tribe Challenges Pamunkey Ancestral Land Claim

Posted on: January 14, 2019, 11:26h. 

Last updated on: January 14, 2019, 11:26h.

The Pamunkey tribe of Virginia want to build the state’s first ever casino, in the city of Norfolk on the banks Elizabeth River. The tribe has the support of the city mayor and a financial backer — in billionaire investor Jon Yarbrough.

A rendering of the $700 million hotel and casino the Pamunkey plan to build in Norfolk, Virginia, but the Nansemond tribe has other ideas and has accused the Pamunkey of historical revisionism. (Image: Pamunkey Tribe)

But there’s a snag.

Since the land in question is outside the tribe’s official reservation, the Pamunkey must apply to the Department of the Interior to have the land placed into trust. To have any chance of approval, it needs the DOI to accept the land was once part of the Pamunkey’s historical, ancestral homelands.

Pamunkey chief Robert Gray told The Virginian Pilot recently that he believes the tribe’s ancestors lived, farmed, fished, and hunted in the area.

But the Nansemond tribe says they didn’t because their own ancestors did. Now, the Nansemond accuse the Pamunkey of rewriting history and are furious they were not consulted about the casino proposal before it was announced last month by Norfolk Mayor Kenny Alexander.

“They have never had a presence in this area. Is the history of the whole state of Virginia up for revision?” Nansemond Chief Samuel Bass asked The Daily Press. “When we heard the Pamunkey were coming here, it was like dropping a bomb on us,” he added. “We’re not attacking the Pamunkey. It’s a matter of what’s recorded in history.”

Legal Minefield

Seven Virginia tribes have received federal recognition — a prerequisite for casino gaming. The Pamunkey were the first, in 2015. The remaining six — including the Nansemond — received federal status last year through an act of Congress that denied them the right to build casinos.

So the Pamunkey are the only tribe the state that has a shot, and even then they face a legal and political minefield.

Typically, only tribes that were federally recognized before the Indian Gaming Regulation Act of 1988 are approved for casinos on their own reservations, and land is usually only taken into trust for off-reservation casinos for tribes who were recognized before the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act, way back in 1934.

Powhatan’s Federation

There are exceptions. Casino land can be secured by an act of Congress or by a federal court ruling, but to get things done via the normal administrative route, the DOI’s Bureau of Indian Affairs will have to accept strongly that the tribe has a valid ancestral claim — an outcome that will be sorely tested by the Nansemond objection.

In the absence of written history of their own, the Pamunkey are arguing that the early settlers in Virginia recorded that all the tribes in the area were at that time united under a confederation known as Tsenacommacah, ruled by the powerful Chief Powhatan — the father of Pocahontas.

According to the settlers, these lands stretched across almost all of east Virginia, and it is as a historical member of the Tsenacommacah that the Pamunkey claim ties to Richmond.

It doesn’t wash with the Nansemond, but will it wash with the DOI?