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Leaders hopeful of U.S. recognition for Jamestown 5-3-07

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - For nearly a decade, six Virginia Indian tribes have pushed legislation seeking federal recognition, a promise of federal funds and a symbolic nod to those whose ancestors welcomed English settlers ages ago.

Again and again, they've failed.

Now, as America marks its birth along Virginia's shores, tribal leaders are hanging their hopes on one bill's passage by a House committee - a small but significant step that could place the measure on the president's desk in time for the 400th anniversary of Jamestown just days away.

A Democratic Congress, plus ironclad guarantees the tribes won't pursue casino-like gaming, have helped fast-track the bill. But can lawmakers meet the Indian-imposed deadline, a date full of emotion for tribes shunted for centuries?

“I'm optimistic that we're going to get it,” said Gene Adkins, chief of the Eastern Chickahominy, among the tribes seeking recognition since the '90s. “I just don't know when it's going to happen.”

In theory, it could be this week.

On April 25, members of the House Natural Resources Committee approved legislation authored by Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., granting long-sought recognition to the Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond tribes, as well as Adkins' tribe.

That measure may go before the House this week.

A matching bill must pass the Senate; should the two bodies approve differing legislation, a conference committee must work out the kinks before the bill proceeds.

That could be a costly delay for tribal leaders, who've zeroed in on the May 11-13 pinnacle of Jamestown 2007 and even threatened to boycott the weekend of special events failing recognition.

Still, this is the first time the bill has cleared a key House committee.

“If it goes out on the floor in the House, and it passes there, it will certainly be a boost to get into the Senate,” Adkins said.

The federal government recognizes more than 500 American Indian tribes.

Hundreds more are like the Virginia Indians - recognized by the state, but lacking the federal recognition entitling them to millions in federal funds distributed to tribes annually.

It's cash leaders hope can invigorate Virginia's modest community of 24,261 Indians, supporting things like college tuition.

Until now, recognition has been dashed by a Republican-led Congress fixated on issues of Indian gaming, explained Austin Durrer, a spokesman for Moran.

The shift to Democratic control and the installation of bill co-sponsor Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., as committee chairman have given the legislation new life, Durrer said.

Virginia's Indian leaders made a major concession: a House amendment ensuring they won't bring gaming to the commonwealth.

But the concession comes at the cost of creating friction with other tribes, who worry about giving up such a key marker of tribal independence - the right to decide for themselves about gaming.

“It sets as precedent that every tribe that comes after us would probably be asked to do the same thing,” explained Wayne Adkins, whose Virginia Indian Tribal Alliance for Life supports the bill.

Virginia Indian leaders have repeatedly said they aren't interested in building bustling casinos.

Still, Adkins said, “We felt that was the only thing that's going to make it move - we've been doing it for nine years, and we always run into the same stumbling block.”

Frequent opponent Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., hasn't decided whether he'll support the measure, said spokesman Dan Scandling.

“We think it's a step in the right direction,” Scandling said. “But we're still trying to figure out if it does everything it says it will do.”

But recognition for Virginia's Indians may carry a high cost. They've skipped the Bureau of Indian Affairs method of gaining recognition - a decades-long process of record review - in favor of the congressional route.

It's faster. But it also rattles other tribes, who have languished on the BIA list for years.

“The legislative process is dependent on the amount of resources that a tribe may or may not have,” explained Michael Cook, head of United South and Eastern Tribes, a coalition opposed to congressional recognition.

“It creates an unbalanced playing field.”