Earlier this year the Interior Department fielded a request to recognize the Pamunkey tribe of Virginia, a proposal which will eventually be decided by Obama’s Interior Secretary. This would not only give the members access to the usual benefits received from Washington and the complicated relationship with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but also allow them to get moving on putting up a casino on their land. However the Congressional Black Caucus and other Democrats are fighting the move due to allegations that the tribe has a history of discriminatory practices.

Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus are urging the Obama administration to withhold federal recognition of a Virginia Indian tribe because of its history of banning intermarriage with blacks…

The Congressional Black Caucus members urged Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Attorney General Eric Holder to hold off until the Justice Department investigates any discriminatory practices by the tribe. Neither department has responded to the request, made in a Sept. 23 letter, according to a spokeswoman for Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson, who signed the letter.

The letter cited a report by the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs that quoted tribal law: “No member of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe shall intermarry with anny (sic) Nation except White or Indian under penalty of forfeiting their rights in Town.”

The bureau said it had no indication the tribe had changed its ban, but Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown responded in a letter to the CBC that the ban has been repealed. He said in an interview that the change was made in 2012.

This entire process goes deep in the weeds on matters which don’t often come up for discussion, and I’ve struggled to understand the process in similar cases up here in New York. First, I’m not entirely sure how they would quantify the additional layers of “recognition” being sought. The Pamunkey have been in Virginia since the first Europeans arrived and have a recognized reservation there. They also have a treaty with the state which they have honored for over 300 years, and it includes paying an annual tribute to the Governor in the form of wild game and pottery. (See image on front page.) But this does not, it seems, automatically translate over to federal recognition and the benefits associated with that.

It would be interesting to see how diligently all the other tribes have been held to modern standards of law, civil rights and the like. The Pamunkey apparently had that ban (which was not just against “blacks” but any minorities who are not “white” or “tribal”) primarily as a means of keeping some sort of tribal ethnic purity. That’s not exactly unknown in other cultures, either officially or unofficially, and I’m unclear to what extent – if any – Washington can dictate the tribe’s laws to them.

But for all of that debate, it looks like this probably has a lot more to do with that casino than any sort of social justice or racial purity questions. If they get approval for the project it will likely mean tens of millions of dollars flowing in to the tribe’s 200 current members. It will also mean yet more competition for Atlantic City, Vegas and the casino industry’s supporters in Congress. If the Pamunkey tribe loses this battle, I’d be willing to bet it won’t be because of some previous rule on interracial marriage. At least not entirely