Tribal Recognition Criteria

According to the Code of Virginia, § 2.2-401.01, the “Secretary of the Commonwealth may establish a Virginia Indian advisory board to assist the Secretary in reviewing applications seeking recognition as a Virginia Indian tribe and to make recommendations to the Secretary, the Governor, and the General Assembly on such applications and other matters relating to recognition.”

The criteria for full recognition must be “consistent with the principles and requirements of federal tribal recognition.”

In carrying out its mandate from the General Assembly, the Virginia Indian advisory board will utilize the following criteria.

All criteria will be considered and reviewed as guidance, but no single criteria standing alone will be the basis for granting or denying a recommendation from the Virginia Indian advisory board to the Governor and the General Assembly. All criteria must be addressed in some fashion. 

Criterion 1.   Demonstrate descent from an historical Indian group(s) that lived within Virginia’s current boundaries at the time of that group’s first contact with Europeans.

The tribe from which petitioners claim descent should have lived in an area within the current boundaries of the Commonwealth of Virginia at the time of that tribe’s first sustained, documented contact with Europeans.

Documents that will be considered include, but are not limited to:

  • Historical accounts written by early explorers who encountered the tribe
  • Letters or diaries from government surveyors, Indian agents, and the like, who were sent out to negotiate with the group either before or soon after Europeans began arriving; also the governmental instructions (if they name the group) given to such surveyors or agents
  • Letters, reports, diaries, or other documents from the early historic period in the group’s area
  • Early cartographers’ maps of the region, showing the location of the group’s towns or villages

These accounts and maps should be photocopies of the originals (i.e., primary sources).  Later scholars’ summaries and composite maps (i.e., secondary sources) will be considered if the original documents have been lost.

Criterion 2. Show that the group’s members have retained a specific Indian tribal identity.

Petitioning groups should submit substantial evidence supporting their long-time sustained practice of identifying as “Indians”.

Documents that will be considered include, but are not limited to:

  • Affidavits from elderly group members (showing the date collected and the age of the person attesting) that the group has identified internally as “Indian”
  • Current and historic affidavits by local “non-Indians” testifying that the group or individual members of it were considered “Indians” by numerous people in the area
  • Local, state, or federal records that show opposition to group members identifying themselves as “Indians”
  • Documentary evidence of group members identifying themselves as “Indians” among themselves, such as correspondence, diaries, family Bible entries, birth certificates showing a significant number of babies were given traditional “Indian” names
  • Correspondence or photographs of group members showing that they visited with members of other tribes
  • Accounts by scholars that mention or describe the group
  • Colonial, local, state, or federal records that show that the group, or individual members of it, were identified as Indian or as their ancestral tribe; ideally, this kind of identification should be continuous from early historical times to the present, but the absence of such continuous records, shall not, standing alone, be a basis for a negative recommendation.
  • Documents relative to the formal organization by the group of a group corporation, school, church, or other such institution, if the institution included the word “Indian” or a tribal name.

Records submitted should be photocopies of the originals (i.e., primary sources) with proper citations.  Later scholars’ summaries (i.e., secondary sources) will be considered if the original documents have been lost.

Criterion 3.   Trace the group’s existence within Virginia from first contact to the present.

The petitioners should be able to document their group’s history within Virginia at the time of their first Colonial encounter through present day.  If there has been movement from the originally recorded location to other places within Virginia, then records documenting the group’s existence along the route of movement will be considered.  A geographical clustering of families should be demonstrated at least until the early twentieth century.

Ideally, petitioning groups should show that they have had a community existing within Virginia from historic times to the present.  Any group of descendants that have been organized out-of-state may not originate a petition for state recognition. 

Documents that will be considered include, but are not limited to:

  • Maps from primary sources showing the relevant Indian town(s)
  • Colonial, local, state, or federal census records showing named Indian town(s) in the location(s) inhabited by the group
  • Relevant treaties, resolutions or agreements
  • Governmental records or correspondence pertaining to the group’s land or activities
  • Governmental records pertaining to encroachments on the group’s land
  • Group records in government, local, or personal document collections that mention an Indian community in their vicinity. This may include deeds and land patents mentioning the group’s land being nearby, and later deeds, plat books, and processioners’ returns showing group members tending to live adjacent to one another
  • Census records indicating the group’s structure.
  • A documented genealogy of the current members, highlighting of any lines descending to current members from ancestors appearing in public records as “Indian” or “group name”

These maps and records should be photocopies of the original versions (i.e., primary documents).  Later scholars’ summaries and composite maps (i.e., secondary sources) will be considered if the original documents have been lost.

Criterion 4.   Provide a complete genealogy of current group members, traced as far back as possible.

The present members of the petitioner’s group should be shown, as far back as records permit, to descend directly from members of the original historical tribe(s).  The petitioners should trace their tribal genealogies to at least the mid-nineteenth century.

Documents that will be considered include, but are not limited to:

  • Membership rolls from the past, with current members’ ancestors among the enrolled people highlighted.
  • Records (internal and/or external) showing political cohesion among the people, even if incorporation and official leadership were not established until later

Criterion 5.   Show that the group has been socially and culturally cohesive Indian community, at least for the twentieth century and farther back if possible, by organizing separate churches, schools, political organizations, businesses, cultural groups or the like.

Documents that will be considered include, but are not limited to:

  • All group membership rolls compiled either by the group or others
  • Records from the segregation era showing a separate school for the group whether that school was public or private
  • Records (internal and/or external) showing one or more “Indian” religious congregations, with a majority of their members belonging to the petitioning group. Cemetery records, in which the majority of burials are group members
  • Documents showing that group members married within the group, at least until the twentieth century
  • Records showing group members doing business frequently with one another.
  • Marriage records, deeds of trust, wills and guardian accounts, local business and personal records showing group members relied upon one another when there was need to provide security for bonds or debts, to execute wills, to rear orphaned children and the like
  • Records such as travel accounts, correspondence, or diaries completed by non-Indians mentioning the group being “tight -knit,” “in-marrying,” “close,” or “familiar.”
  • Any other documented traditions, customs, legends, etc. associated with the group.

The records should be photocopies of the original, eyewitness accounts or reports (i.e., primary sources).

Criterion 6.   Provide evidence of contemporary formal organization, with full membership restricted to people genealogically descended from the historic tribe(s).

The petitioning group should currently have a formally organized government, with established bylaws and with membership criteria restricting full membership to people proving their genealogical descent either from the historic tribe(s) or from a historic membership roll.

Documents that will be considered include, but are not limited to:

  • Current roll of members
  • Bylaws
  • Organizational structure
  • Certificate of incorporation, if the group is incorporated
  • The historical membership roll, if one exists, from which members descend. 

Procedure for Petitioning

  1. Letter of Intent to Petition
  2. Submitting the Petition
  3. The Workgroup on State Recognition
  4. Workgroup Recommendation to the Board
  5. Voting by the board

Learn more


Kelly Thomasson
Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office
Post Office Box 2454
Richmond, Virginia 23218