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The Pamunkey Tribe and Its Casino Dreams
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The Pamunkey Tribe and Its Casino Dreams

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You’d be forgiven if the only thing you knew of Virginia’s Pamunkey Indian Tribe is that its members deliver “tax tribute” of a deer carcass to the commonwealth’s governor each year around Thanksgiving, fulfilling terms of a 341-year-old treaty. But soon, the tribe may be the first to bring casino gambling to the state.

The history of the tribe goes back thousands of years and its relationship with the colony of, and later state, of Virginia is hundreds of years old. It was the sole tribe in the commonwealth to gain federal recognition administratively rather than through the much more difficult route of congressional action because its vital records had been saved from destruction in the Revolutionary and Civil wars and from courthouse fires.

When the Monacan Nation of Amherst County and five other state tribes pursued federal recognition through an act of Congress, one privilege they signed away early on was the ability to open gambling casinos. Tribes in the Northeast have become big players in the lucrative business as a way to maintain financial independence, and congressmen such as then-U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf of Northern Virginia were adamantly opposed to such enterprises opening in the state.

But the Pamunkey, who gained recognition in 2015, retain those rights and have developed plans to open a gaming casino to pay for tribal needs such as scholarships, health care, business startups and the like. They’ve purchased 600 acres along Interstate 64 in New Kent County and partnered with a billionaire developer from Tennessee to work with them to make the project a reality.

But earlier this month, during the annual ceremony at the Executive Mansion in Richmond, Chief Robert Gray told reporters New Kent is “just one option” the tribe has, saying, “We only want to go where we are welcome.”

You see, earlier this year New Kent residents and elected officials packed a school auditorium for a public meeting about the possibility of a tribal casino being located in the county. No representative of the tribe was invited, and things did not go well.

The tribe plans to apply to the federal Department of the Interior for the tract and any other land purchases to be placed into a federal trust, becoming part of the Pamunkey reservation and their sovereign nation. Once in the reserve, it wouldn’t be subject to zoning laws or local and state taxes.

Chief Gray has pledged the tribe will enter into revenue-sharing agreements with the state and any locality where it locates any casino to cover the costs of infrastructure improvements or emergency services.

But still, it’s not been enough for New Kent residents, some of whom at the public meeting railed against gambling as a “sin” and citing Bible verses as the basis of their opposition to the Pamunkeys’ plans.

All of which is ironic, considering that New Kent County is home to the state’s only horse track, Colonial Downs, which is in the process of reopening under new ownership along with various off-site gambling parlors across the state. There’s also the fact that the commonwealth itself has sponsored a state lottery for 30 years, something no one seems to have any problem with.

The Pamunkey are only hoping to achieve a degree of the independence they lost that fateful day in May 1607 when English settlers landed at what was to become Jamestown. Prejudices and irrational fears from the past shouldn’t stand in the way of the Pamunkeys’ fight for a better future.

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