WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For most U.S. citizens the 400th anniversary of the first permanent English settlement in America is a time to celebrate pioneers who crossed the ocean in sailing ships and braved hardships to forge a nation.
But for American Indians whose ancestors lived in America when the English adventurers slogged ashore on Jamestown Peninsula in what is now Virginia, it is at once a reminder of their long struggle to overcome persecution and prejudice and a chance to reintroduce themselves to the world.
“We’re celebrating 400 years of survival in a fairly hostile environment,” said Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock, one of several Powhatan tribes involved in the commemoration events this month that included a visit by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II.
The struggle is not over. The last time the queen visited Jamestown, 50 years ago on the 350th anniversary, it was illegal in Virginia to register as an Indian, and violators faced up to a year in prison.
Even today, the state’s Powhatan tribes — the descendants of the people who helped the first English settlers survive — are not officially recognized by the federal government, a move that would make their 3,175 members eligible to receive aid available to other Indians.
A measure recognizing six Virginia tribes — the Rappahannock, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Nansemond and Monacan — passed the U.S. House of Representatives this week. But it has yet to clear the Senate and must be signed by the president.
Five of the tribes are Powhatan. The sixth, the Monacan, had contact with the English in 1608.
Given the history of discrimination, the groups might have been justified in skipping Jamestown events, including the queen’s tour last week and a visit by U.S. President George W. Bush this weekend. But Richardson said the tribes decided two years ago to participate.
“We saw an opportunity with the 400th anniversary to get the truth out about our history instead of that colonialized version that the world now knows,” she said.
Many people know the story of the Jamestown settlers and how they were helped by Chief Powhatan and his daughter, Pocahontas. Disney spun the tale into an animated Hollywood movie, but much of the tribes’ interaction with Europeans would not make suitable viewing for children.
The influx of Europeans following the success of the 1607 Jamestown settlement brought the sides into conflict. After a second war with the English, the Indians signed the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation with Charles II, which is still observed annually when tribes pay a tribute to the state governor.
“It’s the oldest Indian treaty in existence today,” Democratic Rep. James Moran of Virginia told a House debate.
By the 1700s the tribes had lost most of their land. They became increasingly marginalized over the years, but some of the worst persecution came in the 20th century.
Virginia adopted a racial law in 1924 that required all citizens to be registered at birth as either white or “colored.”
“This law allowed the Commonwealth of Virginia to destroy the documents that proved the existence of these Native American families,” Moran said.
A white supremacist who headed the Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics used the law to systematically alter records to identify tribe members as “colored” instead of Indian.
“We could not get medical care for our people during that time, we could not get educated during that time, we could not get jobs during that time,” Richardson said.
The discrimination lasted more than 40 years and did not end until the U.S. Supreme Court struck down part of the law in 1967 and the state repealed the remainder in the 1970s.
Since then, the Virginia tribes have begun to reclaim their heritage. Many won state recognition in the 1980s, but most had little chance of winning federal status through the Bureau of Indian Affairs because their records had been destroyed.
For seven years they have sought recognition by an act of Congress. The measure that passed the House on Tuesday could bring as much as $8 million in assistance annually, but it would also be an acknowledgment of their history and culture.
History and culture are something the tribes have tried to highlight with their participation in the Jamestown commemoration.
“It was the opportunity to raise our profile, to make people more aware of who we are,” said Wayne Adkins, second assistant chief of the Chickahominy and leader of the federal recognition effort. “Many people don’t realize there are tribes still in Virginia.”