Washington : The descendants of Native Americans who encountered the first permanent British settlement in the New World are one step closer to a long-sought goal.
As the US celebrates the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown colony, Congress this week cleared one hurdle for Virginia Indian tribes seeking recognition.
The US House of Representatives passed a bill that would grant federal recognition for the first time to six American Indian tribes in Virginia, a measure that would qualify them for federal aid programmes and give the tribes long-denied official status.
With a host of events and a just-concluded visit by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain, the US is observing the 400th anniversary of the May 1607 arrival of the small band of settlers to Jamestown, Virginia.
But descendants of the Powhatan, a confederation of tribes that ruled much of the state, are reminded of their lack of formal government recognition and the loss of their land to European settlers.
More than 500 tribes across the US have been afforded federal recognition that grants access to government money and programmes. To receive such status by the standard procedure, tribes must prove continuous existence, but Virginia's 20th-century racial segregation laws – overturned in the 1960s – robbed native descendants of that evidence in what is termed a "paper genocide".
Under laws aimed at segregating African-Americans, only two racial categories existed – white and "coloured". Native Americans were forced to label themselves as "coloured" along with blacks and could be jailed for calling themselves Indians.
Six of the state's tribes, who are seeking recognition through an act of Congress, see this month's events at Jamestown as an opportunity both to tell their own history and to raise awareness about their long struggle to gain federal recognition.
Chief Kenneth Adams of the Upper Mattoponi said his tribe is participating in Jamestown anniversary events in part to bring attention to their efforts.
"We feel as if we're treated as second-class Indians in this land," Adams said. "That's ironic, because in 1607 without the Virginia Indians' support, the Jamestown colony would not have survived."
The House of Representatives' approval is for the first time a bill to grant recognition to Virginia's tribes has cleared a major congressional hurdle, but the bill must still be passed by the upper Senate and signed by President George W. Bush before the tribe could claim the status.
"It is fitting that while the eyes of the world focus on Jamestown, the real first inhabitants of that land have cleared a major hurdle in their bid to be recognized," said the bill's sponsor, Congressman James Moran, a Virginia Democrat.
"The Virginia tribes have been sharing the spotlight at Jamestown, but deserve to do so as Virginia's first fully recognized Native American tribes."
Similar bills were defeated in the past, and some members of Congress are worried that the Virginia tribes may open casinos, following the lead of tribes in other states. The US Bureau of Indian Affairs worries about the impact of bypassing its authority over tribal recognition.
Virginia Senator John Warner, who would be a likely choice to take up the bill in the Senate, declined Wednesday to say what stance he would take on the measure, but said he was concerned it would open the door for gambling, despite prohibitions in the bill on opening casinos.
The state's other US senator, James Webb, has not yet taken a position while he studies the issue, his spokesperson Kimberly Hunter said.
With the major Jamestown festivities peaking this weekend, it looks unlikely the tribes' 2,500 members will have cleared their last hurdle in time to mark the 400th anniversary.
Still, the bill's sponsor remains optimistic it can move along quickly as the world focuses its attention on Jamestown.