Author: Michelle Kiel

Michelle Lea Kiel, Ph.D., is a cultural anthropologist specializing in political systems and was principal author the Pamunkey Indian Tribe’s successful petition for federal acknowledgment. She is the Senior Executive Director of Kenah Consulting, a SWAM-certified Virginia consulting firm that works with tribal communities across the country to enhance tribal sovereignty and with cultural heritage institutions to equitably engage tribal communities.

The Legal Status and Classification of Virginia Indians

Indigenous communities in Virginia have experienced several shifts in their legal status over the past four centuries. From their initial status as tributaries during the colonial period, Virginia tribes saw a reduction of their tribal lands and the corresponding erosion of their legal rights throughout the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. By the late eighteenth century, only four Virginia tribes retained treaty lands and the Commonwealth of Virginia had abandoned many of its treaty obligations. Virginia tribes, however, continued to function as autonomous communities, retaining separate institutions that allowed for the continued expression of Indigeneity through cultural, social, and economic practices. These institutions included governing systems, church congregations, and schools that supported Virginia tribes’ successful efforts in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries to advocate for recognition at the local, state, and federal levels.