Virginia congresswomen propose federal recognition of Patawomeck Indian Tribe

By: - September 18, 2023 6:07 pm
US Capitol

The U.S. Capitol. (Marisa Demarco / Source New Mexico)

Three Virginia congresswomen are pushing for federal recognition of the Patawomeck Indian Tribe, whose presence in present-day Stafford and King George counties can be traced back to the 1300s and was noted in some of European colonists’ earliest records. 

“Our community has always been here, and we have been a strong part of the fabric of our Virginia home,” said Patawomeck Chief Charles “Bootsie” Bullock in a statement. “We are not only descendants of many centuries of our ancestors, but today we are neighbors, colleagues, friends, and proud Americans — and our heritage deserves to be recognized by the federal government like other Indigenous communities.” 

The Patawomeck Indian Tribe won state recognition from Virginia in 2010 and today has over 2,600 enrolled members, most of whom live in Stafford County. 

Legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Prince William, Jennifer Wexton, D-Loudoun, and Jen Kiggans, R-Virginia Beach, seeks to secure federal recognition for the tribe, which would extend sovereignty rights to the Patawomeck while also allowing them to access federal benefits, services and protections. Among those is the right to federal consultation, or the requirement that federal agencies seek input from tribal officials in developing regulations or policies that might impact Indigenous nations. The tribe announced it was seeking federal recognition through legislation in January 2022

As of February, 574 tribes in the U.S. had received federal recognition, including seven in Virginia: the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, Eastern Chickahominy Indian Tribe, Monacan Indian Nation, Nansemond Indian Nation, Pamunkey Indian Tribe, Rappahannock Tribe and Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe. 

But while Virginia’s tribes are among the first Indigenous nations recorded by European colonists, none were able to achieve federal recognition until 2016; six won it through federal legislation rather than the typical administrative review process overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. 

The tough road to recognition for the tribes can be traced to a longstanding state law that officially erased the nations’ existence by classifying Virginia’s populace as either white or Black, as well as the widespread destruction of state and local records during the Civil War. 

To obtain federal recognition, tribes must meet seven criteria, including demonstrating that they’ve been “identified as an American Indian entity on a substantially continuous basis since 1900” and that a “predominant portion” of their membership “comprises a distinct community and has existed as a community from historical times until the present.” 

The “continuous” part of the criteria has been especially difficult for Virginia tribes. Because so much of the Civil War was fought in the commonwealth — more than 2,000 military engagements and 26 major battles — dozens of courthouses and official records repositories were destroyed or extensively damaged. Among those were the Stafford and King George courthouses, where records of the Patawomeck could have been found. 

More recently, the state’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 classified every Virginia resident as white or Black. One of its major supporters, former Virginia Bureau of Vital Statistics Chief Walter Plecker, for years ordered that the bureau alter the birth and death certificates of Virginia Indians to identify them as Black. 

“Dr. Plecker has compelled an unestimated number of Virginians of mixed blood to be registered, willing or unwilling, as Negroes,” noted a 1935 profile of Plecker in The Richmond Times-Dispatch. 

The state policy came to be known as a “paper” or “documentary genocide” that would prevent federal recognition for decades. 

In a release Monday, Spanberger said the Patawomeck’s “long history, their rich traditions, and their centuries of contributions to Virginia deserve respect and recognition.” 

“The federal government is long overdue to acknowledge what the Commonwealth of Virginia and the members of the Patawomeck Tribe themselves already know to be true,” she said.

Spanberger, Wexton and Kiggans’ legislation notes several key moments in the tribe’s history recorded in European and later U.S. documents. They include: 

  • 1608: John Smith visits the village of Patawomeke, which has an estimated population of 800, with 160 bowmen, as well as nearby Patawomeck villages at Passapatanzy and Quiyough. 
  • 1610: “Japazaw, brother of the Patawomeck weroance, related the Patawomeck creation story to Captain Samuel Argall, the only surviving Virginia Algonquian creation story recorded by the English.”
  • July 1666: Virginia’s General Council declares war on the Patawomeck, killing most of the tribe’s men and enslaving most of the women and children. 
  • 1789: White Oak Church is built in Stafford and becomes a gathering space for Patawomeck tribal members, who used it “to pass down and maintain Tribal knowledge and traditions, meet suitable Patawomeck marriage partners, and conduct business in formal and informal ways.” 
  • 1930s-1940s: “At least 722 Patawomeck ancestors were taken from their graves under the guise of archaeological research. Many of these ancestors were discarded by the excavators.” Over 200 are currently held by the Smithsonian. 
  • 1996: Patawomeck Tribe adopts a written constitution. 
  • 2006: Patawomeck tribal members begin reconstructing their native Algonquin language.
  • 2010: Patawomeck receive official state recognition from Virginia.


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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.