RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - After decades of waiting, six Native American tribes across Virginia finally have federal recognition. President Trump signed the bill this week.
Walking on sacred ground in Charles City County, VA gives Stephen Adkins a moment to reflect on how far the Chickahominy Indian Tribe has come.
"That's what they were struggling for, to say 'folks, we are Indians, that is who we are,'" explained Chief Adkins.
He is the Chief of the Chickahominy, proudly representing the culture and heritage, one he says has been full of adversity and resilience.
Adkins says he remembers the days of discrimination against Indians in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Many of Virginia's Indian Tribes built their own schools and hired their own teachers.
Adkins says in the 1940s, the Commonwealth provided education to Native Americans, but it only went until the 8th grade. After that, they had the option to leave and continue their education in Oklahoma.
"Those hardships really galvanized us, made us stronger, and didn't weaken our resolve," said Chief Adkins. "We kept on, because we believe in our history, we believe in our story, and at the end of the day, we believe Congress will do the right thing. We believed it, and it happened."
For 20 years, Adkins has continued to work with lawmakers and other tribes to see that Virginia's Indian Tribes receive federal recognition.
"We went through the terrible time when the Commonwealth turned its back on us and allowed officials to take the pen and commit paper genocide. We wanted that day of reckoning," he said.
That day came on Jan. 29, when President Trump signed H.R. 984, the "Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017, which federally recognizes the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Nansemond and Monacan tribes in Virginia."
Trump's signing follows years of lobbying from U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner of Virginia. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Virginia, made the official announcement to the six tribal leaders on Monday.
"It helps ensure the future of our tribes," explained Assistant Chief Wayne Adkins. "It gives us more resource to do archives, to collect history, to teach the children and even some of the adults."
Wayne Adkins father is a former chief of the Chickahominy Tribe. He knows winning the fight of federal recognition is one he and other ancestors are rejoicing about.
"The day the bill passed, people said [the ancestors] were probably in heaven dancing, because we achieved a goal," said Adkins.
For other Indian tribes, the federal recognition is the beginning of a brighter future for the generations still to come. For Chief W. Frank Adams of the Mattaponi Tribe, their goal is continue to educate.
"Our responsibility is to not let our culture die," said Chief Adams. "I don't want my children, nieces and nephews to only be an Indian. I want them to be a citizen of the United States also, so they've got two roles."
Doris Ann Austin, a council member of the Eastern Chickahominy, says Chief Gene Adkins has dedicated his life's work to seeing the federal recognition come to fruition. Austin is also looking forward, thinking about her children and the younger Eastern Chickahominy.
"This is so much for them. I hope we get grants for education and healthcare," said Austin.
That is what the federal recognition will bring: more resources, including access to affordable healthcare for elders, the ability to recover remains of ancestors - many are in the Smithsonian.
"It's a very happy day for all Virginia Indians, and I think it's a very happy day for the Commonwealth," said Chief Adkins.
Copyright 2018 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.