Pamunkey Tribe hopes to announce potential casino location in coming months

By: - November 23, 2018 6:00 am

Pamunkey Indian Tribe Chief Robert Gray presented Gov. Ralph Northam with a deer and pottery at the 341st tax tribute ceremony, during which the Pamunkey and Mattaponi present game hunted on their land in lieu of tax payments under the terms of a treaty signed in 1677.

Leaders of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe say they’ve been working to strike a deal with a Virginia city or county that will embrace their goal of opening the state’s first tribal casino and hope to announce a potential location in the next several months.

The tribe has already secured 600 acres along Interstate 64 in New Kent County, but received a chilly reception at public meetings held earlier this year.

“We only want to go where we’re welcome,” said Chief Robert Gray, speaking to reporters Wednesday after delivering a deer carcass to Gov. Ralph Northam in Richmond as part of the tribe’s annual tax tribute, a tradition that dates to the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation.

Gray said he could not yet identify any specific localities and declined to characterize talks with New Kent leaders, who were not immediately reachable for comment.

“New Kent is just one option we have open,” he said.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported earlier this year that the tribe was also mulling an urban location in Richmond.

The Pamunkey could locate their casino anywhere within their traditional territory, which stretches generally from the Richmond area to Jamestown. Once the tribe reaches an agreement with a local government, Gray said they will begin a years-long process of getting federal approval for the site.

The Pamunkey won federal recognition in 2015, granting them tribal sovereignty and allowing them to pursue the project with limited state oversight, though Gray said the tribe is pursuing a compact with the state, which would determine what kinds of gambling are allowed.

The tribe hopes a casino will provide jobs and revenue that will allow it to “stand alone as our own sovereign nation,” Gray said: “Health, culture, housing, education, those are the big ones.”

Virginia has historically resisted bids to expand casino gambling, though earlier this year lawmakers softened their stance, allowing the operators of Colonial Downs to open gambling parlors around the state that will feature slot machines based on historical horse races.

During the coming legislative session, two lawmakers have already announced bills that would legalize sports betting and a group of businessmen in Bristol are mounting a push to win approval for a casino resort in a former mall building they purchased.

The Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes present Gov. Ralph Northam with two deer hunted on their land in lieu of tax payments under the terms of a treaty signed in 1677.

Gray doesn’t want to say his tribe’s annual presentation of a deer, pottery, jewelry and other gifts to generations of Virginia governors will do much to grease the wheels. But he doesn’t think it hurts, either.

“341 years, that’s a long time greasing the wheels,” he says. “But, no, … I view as two totally separate issues.”

The annual ceremony is conducted with Virginia’s Mattaponi Tribe, which is also a party to the Treaty of Middle Plantation, an accord between the tribes and King Charles II of England that dictates that presentation of 20 beaver skins each year in lieu of taxes.

Along the way – Gray says it was in the early 20th century — beaver skins were swapped for deer, but the tradition otherwise carries on as set out 341 years ago.

Regardless of the exact mammal that was delivered, Northam sounded pleased, noting during his remarks that he had been informed that this year’s tribute appeared to compare favorably to those received by his predecessor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

“The deer are much larger this year than they were for Gov. McAuliffe,” he said. “I just want to make that clear to everybody.”

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.