Virginia’s Apology to Native Americans: 
Steps Toward Reconciliation and Social Healing?
by Sarah Wong 3L

The political landscape for some Indigenous Peoples is shifting – at least at the state level. A significant indication of this change is Virginia’s 2007 call for reconciliation in its path-breaking legislative statement of regret over not only the harms of slavery for African Americans [1] but also the “exploitation of Native Americans.” [2]  In February 2007, the Virginia legislature unanimously acknowledged “with profound regret the involuntary servitude of Africans and the exploitation of Native Americans, and call[ed] for reconciliation among all Virginians. [3]  The legislative resolution recognized the manifold injuries inflicted upon Native Americans as well as African Americans by the state and, in turn, Virginia accepted responsibility for those harms.

Virginia’s resolution is unprecedented.  Virginia is the first, and thus far the only, state to include Native Americans in its apology for historic injustices.  The resolution formally recognizes the status of Native Americans in Virginia as the indigenous people of America: “Native Americans inhabited the land throughout the New World and were the ‘first people’ the early English settlers met upon landing on the shores of North America at Jamestown in 1607.” The resolution further acknowledges Virginia’s “maltreatment and exploitation of Native Americans” sanctioned by state law. For example, it highlights the exclusion of Native Americans from public education and the enjoyment of basic civil rights.

[P]ublic education was denied Native American children … Virginia enacted laws to restrict the rights and liberties of Native Americans, including their ability to travel, testify in court, and inherit property, and a rigid social code created segregated schools and churches for whites, African Americans, and Native Americans. [4]

The resolution further emphasizes the harsh impact of Virginia’s legal definition of “Native Americans.”

[T]he Racial Integrity Act of 1924 which institutionalized the “one drop rule,” required racial description of every person to be recorded at birth and banned interracial marriages, effectively rendering Native Americans with African ancestry extinct, and these policies have destroyed the ability of many of Virginia’s indigenous people to prove continuous existence in order to gain federal recognition and the benefits such recognition confers. [5]

In light of these harms, the resolution embraces the language of healing: “the most abject apology for past wrongs cannot right them; yet the spirit of true repentance on behalf of a government, and, through it, a people, can promote reconciliation and healing.”  It also seeks to connect the lessons of the past to Virginia’s future – to “avert the repetition of past wrongs and the disregard of manifested injustices.” [6]  Thus, “the story of Virginia’s Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans and their descendants, the human carnage, and the dehumanizing atrocities committed during colonization and slavery, and, moreover, the faith, perseverance, hope, and endless triumphs of Native Americans and African Americans and their significant contributions to this Commonwealth and the nation should be embraced, celebrated, and retold for generations to come.” [7]  
Partially in pursuit of “healing” and to “avert the repetition of past wrongs,” a number of Republican and Democrat Virginia lawmakers and the state’s current and past two governors have supported six Virginia tribes’ efforts to attain federal recognition. [8]  The reality, however, is that even with some support in Congress, the Virginia tribes face the near insurmountable hurdle of showing substantial documentation proving continuity of existence – an essential requirement when seeking federal recognition. [9]  Under Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, Native American identity was erased from the public record. The Act reclassified Virginia Indians as “colored” – thereby removing their Indian racial designation from birth, marriage and death certificates. [10] Until the United States Supreme Court overturned the Act in the late 1960s, claiming to be an Indian was punishable by as much as a year in prison. [11] Importantly, however, the state of Virginia has not only acknowledged the historical injustice inflicted upon its Indian tribes reflected in its apology resolution, but has also taken responsibility as a state by supporting its Indian tribes’ quest for federal recognition. [12]

Virginia’s efforts at reconciliation and social healing have important implications for Native Hawaiians and their relationship to the state of Hawai‘i. Although the state has enacted and supported a number of laws to benefit Native Hawaiians, whether it has fully acknowledged its responsibility to foster and support Native Hawaiian rights to self-determination is up for debate. [13]  Has the state sufficiently acknowledged its role in past and present harms to Native Hawaiians? Does the state have a responsibility to take additional steps toward reconciliation and social healing to right the manifest injustices against Native Hawaiians and their subsequent harmful effects?

Virginia’s apology resolution along with its recognition of the political status of certain Indian tribes reflects a first step toward reconciliation for past wrongs. Whether Virginia’s apology will bring about enduring forgiveness or restoration remains to be seen. How Virginia chooses to further act on its apology may prove instructive to the State of Hawai‘i in how it acts to repair long-standing damage to its own Native people.

[1] Other states, namely Maryland, North Carolina, and Alabama, have followed Virginia’s path-forging initiative by enacting their own apology resolutions for their involvement in slavery; however, these states have failed to acknowledge their role in the exploitation of Native Americans.  The state of Maryland, in March 2007, became the second state to apologize for its role in the slave trade, expressing “profound regret” that it once “trafficked in human flesh.”  See Maryland Senate Joint Resolution 6, S.J. Res. 6, Sess. 2007 (Md. 2007). Following the lead of lawmakers in Virginia and Maryland, North Carolina became the third state to apologize for the State’s role in promoting slavery and Jim Crow laws, acknowledging its “profound contrition for the official acts that sanctioned and perpetuated the denial of basic human rights and dignity to fellow humans.”  See North Carolina Senate Joint Resolution 1557, S.J. Res. 1557, Sess 2007 (N.C. 2007). As the fourth state to formally apologize for slavery, Alabama’s Legislature, in May 2007, expressed “profound regret” for the state’s role in slavery.  See Alabama House Joint Resolution 321, H.J. Res. 321, Sess. 2007 (Ala. 2007).  Other states debating an apology for slavery include Georgia and Missouri.

[2] Virginia Senate Joint Resolution No. 332, S.J.Res. 332, 2007 Sess. (Va. 2007) [hereinafter Virginia Resolution].

[3] The term “regret” was chosen only after considerable debate. The great-grandsons of slaves, the drafters of the original resolution initially employed the word “atonement” in regards to slavery healing, but lawmakers objected to its use due to its potential to generate claims for reparations which some believe would have disrupted the reconciliation effort. Wendy Koch, Va. 1st State to Express “Regret” Over Slavery, USA Today, Feb. 26, 2007, available at http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-02-25-apology_x.htm?POE=click-refer. 

Virginia’s resolution formally recognized the harms of not only slavery but also post-slavery discrimination: “[T]he ethos of the Africans was shattered, they were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized, and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage, and families were disassembled as husbands and wives, mothers and daughters, and fathers and sons were sold into slavery apart from one another . . . and [with] the abolition of slavery . . . followed . . . systematic discrimination, enforced segregation, and other insidious institutions and practices toward Americans of African descent that were rooted in racism, racial bias, and racial misunderstanding.”  Virginia Resolution, supra note 2.

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] See Eric K. Yamamoto, Sandra Hye Yun Kim and Abigail M. Holden, American Reparations Theory and Practice at the Crossroads, forthcoming California Western Law Review 2007.

[7] Virginia Resolution, supra note 2.

[8] See Brigid Schulte, U.S. Recognition of Va. Tribes Advances, Washingtonpost.com, May 9, 2007, at B01, available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/08/AR2007050801865.html. The six tribes seeking federal recognition under the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Recognition Act include the Chikahominy, Chickahominy-Eastern Division, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond tribes.  Id.

[9] Traditionally, Indian tribes seeking federal recognition and sovereignty that do not have treaties with the United States government must apply through the Bureau of Indian Affairs and prove, through genealogical records, continuous existence as a unique community since the time of first European contact.  Id.

[10] See Bobbie Whitehead, Virginia tribes’ recognition bill passes House, Indian Country Today, May 7, 2007, available at http://www.indiancountry.com/content.cfm?id=1096414965.

[11] See Brigid Schulte, supra note 8.

[12] The Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2007, which “extend[s] Federal recognition to the Chickahominy Indian Tribe, the Chickahominy Indian Tribe-Eastern Division, the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, the Rappahannock Tribe, Inc., the Monacan Indian Nation, and the Nansemond Indian Tribe” has been passed by the United States House of Representatives. Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2007, H.R. 1294, 110th Cong. (2007). The act has been received by the Senate, read twice, and referred to the Committee on Indian Affairs.

[13] Governor Linda Lingle and Attorney General Mark Bennett support programs that benefit Native Hawaiians as well as the Akaka Bill, which seeks federal recognition for Native Hawaiians.  While the Akaka Bill has been controversial for some Native Hawaiians, it does have its supporters.