Originally published by The Richmond Time-Dispatch, Written By Graham Moomaw, May 11, 2018
THE PAMUNKEY INDIAN RESERVATION — They’ve survived in Eastern Virginia for more than 10,000 years, withstanding the arrival of European colonists and holding onto tribal land at a reservation that predates the United States. After a successful three-decade push for federal recognition, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe now has big plans to secure its future in the 21st century. First, the tribe wants a better Internet connection.
With federal recognition came new funding opportunities and more contact with government agencies. But problems can arise when federal officials try to email big files to tribal leaders on the reservation, which lies on an isolated, marshy peninsula jutting into the Pamunkey River.
“We’re trying to run a government here and we’re running off satellite,” said Pamunkey Chief Robert Gray, 59, a Philadelphia-born Air Force veteran who serves as the tribe’s elected leader. “We have data caps. And we’ve run over those data caps a couple months.”
To solve that problem, the tribe that claims Pocahontas as an ancestor is getting into the broadband business.
PamunkeyNet, one of the tribe’s first ventures since winning federal recognition in 2015, would not just serve the reservation. The tribe is partnering with the local planning district commission to bring high-speed Internet to other rural communities in the Middle Peninsula and Northern Neck, raising hopes that more economic development will follow.
The idea of using the tribe’s status to bring broader benefits to Virginia is what gives Gray hope that the Pamunkey people can pull off a more ambitious project: Building a $700 million casino resort somewhere on the land that belonged to his ancestors long before the English landed at Jamestown.
“We’re Pamunkey Indians. But we’re also Virginians,” Gray said. “We’re working to do what will benefit both our tribe and the commonwealth as a whole.”
With about 380 members nationwide, the small tribe’s plan to open Virginia’s first casino could set off a yearslong debate over gambling in a casino-unfriendly state and the rights of a sovereign Indian nation that is trying to become self-sufficient.
The tribe has already secured more than 600 acres in New Kent County, but Gray says that land is one option of many. Another would be a more urban casino in the city of Richmond, which the tribe considers part of its homelands.
“I don’t see why not. Given the population base, the intersection of [Interstates] 95 and 64…. It’s a great nexus,” Gray said. “What’s been happening over the last 10 years or so is exciting for Richmond. And if we can add to that and just continue to help Richmond grow, that would be a great opportunity. But that’s just one option right now that’s out there.”
Indian gaming exists in 29 states, but it doesn’t have much of a foothold in the Mid-Atlantic region. Nationwide, there are more than 500 establishments operated by 244 tribes in a $31.2 billion industry, according to the National Indian Gaming Commission.
In January, President Donald Trump signed legislation granting federal recognition to six other Virginia Indian tribes: the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemond and Monacan. The legislation explicitly prohibited gambling enterprises, leaving the Pamunkey as the only recognized tribe able to pursue a casino.
The first step for the tribe is finding workable real estate within its ancestral territory and convincing the Interior Department to take the land into trust on the tribe’s behalf. Before a full-blown casino could open, the tribe would likely enter into a tribal-state compact through talks with the governor and/or the General Assembly. That process could include negotiations over how much casino revenue would go to the state and local governments in exchange for an exception to state laws that prohibit casino gambling.
Gray has said he wants to move forward with the casino within five years, but the tribe also wants to pursue other projects to provide housing, education and health care to tribe members and open a modern museum that could bring the Pamunkey story to a wider audience.
‘We’re still here’
Hanging on to a small fraction of the land reserved for Virginia Indians in a 1646 peace treaty has been key to the tribe’s resilience despite centuries of colonial occupation, attempts to erase the reservation from the map and attacks on the tribe’s authenticity, according to historian Ashley Spivey. As other coastal tribes that were part of the powerful Powhatan chiefdom lost their land and saw their numbers fade, the Pamunkey persisted. Pamunkey people fought alongside Americans in the Revolutionary War and assisted Union forces during the Civil War, putting their knowledge of Virginia’s waterways to use as spies, guides and soldiers.
Many Pamunkey people, including Gray’s grandparents, left Virginia in the 1920s amid racial hostility that made it difficult to find work. Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 outlawed interracial marriage and allowed only two racial categories – white and “colored” – a policy that effectively stripped many Native Americans of their identity.
“In the face of all of that, we’re still here. And we’re still a vibrant community,” said Spivey, who has a doctorate in anthropology from the College of William & Mary and serves as director of the Pamunkey Indian Tribal Resource Center.
The Pamunkey reservation is one of just two in Virginia. The other, belonging to the Mattaponi tribe, is on the Mattaponi River near West Point, a short drive from the Pamunkey land.
The surviving tribes have made themselves visible to Virginia governors by trekking to the Executive Mansion every year for a tribute ceremony that dates to the 1677 Treaty of Middle Plantation. The presentations of deer and other tribal objects show that the tribes are still upholding their end of the agreement, Spivey said, while reminding the state government of its responsibilities to native people.
If the casino-driven economic projects proceed as planned, Gray said, the descendants of the Pamunkey members who left will want to return, reconnecting with a place they already know from summer vacations on the river.
“I would love to see the funds where we can basically give free rides through college for our members and then have them come back and help their own people,” Gray said.
The Pamunkey tribe is starting with little money of its own, but it has found a deep-pocketed partner. Tennessee billionaire Jon Yarbrough – who made his fortune in the tribal casino industry – is planning to bankroll the casino and other projects, bringing in capital that could move the projects along faster than if the tribe tried to go it alone.
Gray said Yarbrough came with glowing recommendations from other tribes and has brought a “personal comfort” to the project that wouldn’t be possible with a bigger corporate partner.
Not every Pamunkey member is thrilled about the idea of bringing in an outsider to spearhead a splashy project with a tribe that has little experience in the gambling world.
“It’s an industry, and you have to know what you’re doing,” said former Pamunkey Chief Kevin Brown, who served in the role for nearly eight years before Gray replaced him in 2015. “And if you just turn it over to a white man and say ‘Here white man run it for us and just give us money,’ I think that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Under federal regulations, outside involvement in tribal casinos is reviewed periodically to ensure a tribe’s status isn’t being abused by non-native partners. The regulations also allow individual tribe members to get a cut of any gaming proceeds, but Gray said he wants to use the money “in a way that enhances our people” instead of creating a “welfare state.”
Gray said he’d eventually like to see an all-Pamunkey management team.
“Starting out, sure, we understand we have to hire the experts,” Gray said. “But then we can groom our own experts.”
‘The country feel’
The tribe hasn’t decided where it will try to build its planned casino, but calls are already coming in from salesmen offering hot deals on shower heads and time-lapse photography.
One site that’s not a great option is the reservation itself.
Reachable by a single, narrow road, the reservation is home to about 80 people living in modest homes surrounded by farmland kept on a soybean, corn and wheat rotation. Many residents commute to off-reservation jobs in the greater Richmond region.
On one end of the reservation there’s a line of fishing cabins and a hatchery built to help replenish the river’s shad population. On the other, bald eagles fly over an earthen mound that, according to Pamunkey lore, is the burial place of Powhatan.
“We want to keep the country feel,” Gray said. “That’s why people like it.”
Even though the tribe hasn’t picked a site yet, the potential impact on country life is already causing a stir across the river in New Kent, where county leaders have called a town hall meeting on May 24.
‘It would destroy this interchange’
There’s not much to see at the 600-acre site Yarbrough acquired for the tribe in western New Kent.
The mostly wooded parcels, about a half-hour’s drive from Richmond, are just off I-64 near the Bottoms-Bridge-Quinton exit, where the interstate meets New Kent Highway.
The surrounding area is a typical rural-Virginia interchange. There are a couple of gas stations, some fast-food places and a shopping center with a Food Lion, a few more restaurants and an ABC store.
Standing outside a sports bar where he was about to meet a friend, Michael Haurand, a 57-year-old New Kent resident who lives less than a mile from the possible casino site, said he’s seen the county grow up since he graduated from New Kent High School 38 years ago. But he thinks it’s not ready for the traffic and people a casino would bring.
“I think it would destroy this interchange,” said Haurand, who works in construction management.
Haurand’s friend, insurance agent Bart Leader, sees it differently. Leader, 52, said he saw firsthand the good that casinos did for the Gulf Coast. A tribal casino in New Kent, he said, could help bring in new money for county schools and infrastructure.
“If done correctly, it could be terrific,” Leader said.
The tribe estimates the casino project – which would include a 1,200-room hotel, a spa, a show venue and several restaurants – would produce 4,000 full-time jobs and an indirect economic impact of $1 billion per year.
Revolutionary Racing, the new owner of the Colonial Downs horse-racing track in New Kent, has made similarly eye-popping predictions about its plan to reopen the facility with expanded gambling.
Gray, who used to be able to see fireworks from Colonial Downs from his back deck on the reservation, said the General Assembly’s recent move to legalize a new form of electronic horse-race gambling was a factor in the tribe’s decision to make its plans public.
“We want to cooperate with the state,” Gray said. “And part of that is just, showing them, hey, here’s what it is we’re planning. So that the state can make the best decision.”
Brown, the former Pamunkey chief, said the tribe’s proposed timeline for the casino may be overly optimistic, because getting federal land approvals can take decades.
“It’s just a real long, drawn-out, agonizing process,” Brown said. “And it takes millions of dollars worth of legal work before the tribe sees anything.”
As Gray sees it, the tribe has elders who need health care now, and younger generations that need education. With state and local governments in need of revenue and the Trump administration declaring its willingness to cut through bureaucratic red tape, he said, “let’s go ahead and streamline it.”
“As long as it’s done the right way – which we believe we can work with the state and the localities to do it the right way – it’s a win-win for everyone,” Gray said.