One would think two potential presidential candidates with serious star power, a cluster of other congressional members, tribal leaders and a legitimate scholar would be presence enough for one small Capitol Hill hearing room. But on June 21 in Washington, as the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs considered a bill to confer federal recognition on six Virginia tribes, the truly saturating presence was history itself - make that History.
The 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first permanent Anglo-European settlement in what has become America, will be celebrated in 2007, as noted by Rep. James Moran, D-Va. Tribes elsewhere may be of another mind about it, but Virginia tribes still commemorate their 1677 treaty with England and, by extension, their pivotal contributions to the survival of the Jamestown colonists.
This summer, Moran said, the government of England will reconfirm the treaty from more than 300 years ago. And in what has become an annual ceremony at the state capitol in Richmond, the Virginia governor accepts a treaty tribute ''at the going of the geese'' - treaty language now construed to mean on or near Thanksgiving.
The six state-recognized tribes put forward for federal recognition in Senate Bill 480 are the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Monacan, Nansemond, Rappahannock and Upper Mataponi. Among their historical distinctions is that the state of Virginia made them targets of ''paper genocide'' as late as 1924, when the federal government granted Indians the right to vote. As related by Moran and Helen Rountree, a scholar in cultural anthropology and history, the eugenics movement of the era led state officials to actively destroy evidence of Indian existence in Virginia.
Not until 1967 did federal courts cancel the state's Racial Integrity Act of 1924. By then, Rountree said, incalculable damage had been done to the documentary records of Indian lineage in the state. Rountree, professor emerita of anthropology at Old Dominion University in Suffolk, Va., has worked without charge to restore the record, but gaps remain. Moran cited the state's history of ''paper genocide'' against Indians as a leading reason for Congress to recognize the tribes.
One of those possible presidential candidates, Sen. George Allen, R-Va., has sponsored S. 480, with fellow Virginia Republican John Warner as co-sponsor. In the House of Representatives, Moran has sponsored a companion bill, H. R. 3349.
The other likely contender in 2008, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., suggested that in light of past experience with newly recognized tribes, Allen might want to embed a ban on gaming by the tribes in the bill itself, rather than relying on state opposition or on the current Chickahominy posture against gaming as an option. Moran acknowledged that Indian gaming issues have influenced the ''great resistance'' in Congress to federal recognition for any tribe.
'Too early' for Allen on SCIA post
Sen. John McCain has shown a solid sense of humor when chairing the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, and that may have been the main impetus for a comment he made at the end of a hearing June 21, urging Sen. George Allen to join the committee. Allen, R-Va., had just expressed his gratitude to the chairman for permitting a non-committee member to sit in on a hearing and pose questions. Remarks to that effect are obligatory in Congress on such occasions, and McCain's response got a good laugh from an audience that had dwindled to dozens as the hearing neared adjournment.
But Allen has a long history of productive engagement with Virginia tribes, so a post-hearing followup question seemed reasonable. ''Too early to tell,'' Allen said. ''It would be after the next cycle,'' meaning the November mid-term elections. He also related, as he has at other times in the past, the pleasure he took in the treaty tribute ceremony of tribes at the governor's mansion in Richmond, Va. The tribute of beaver pelts and other wild game goes back more than 300 years, to the tribes' original treaty with the King of England; but it had been neglected in modern times. The tribes revived it when Allen was the governor of Virginia.
Health bill gets past one hurdle
The Resources Committee in the House of Representatives sent the Indian Health Care Improvement Act reauthorization bill to the full House by unanimous consent on June 21.
The Indian Health Care Improvement Act became law in 1976 but has not been updated since 1992. Reauthorization amendments have come before Congress the past six years. But given the volume of program detail on the table, the amendments would amount to more than a simple reauthorization of existing law.
Resources is the main committee of jurisdiction on Indian-specific bills in the House, but the complexity of House Bill 5312 means it must come before other committees as well. Energy and Commerce and Ways and Means must both vote it out of committee before it can come to a vote of the full House.