The Moral of Virginia: On Her Majesties' Solemn Obligations to the Virginia Indian Nations

By Vest, Jay Hansford C. | Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

The Moral of Virginia: On Her Majesties' Solemn Obligations to the Virginia Indian Nations


Vest, Jay Hansford C., Forum on Public Policy: A Journal of the Oxford Round Table


Attending the theme of this conference--"Religion: The Politics of Peace and Conflict"--it may be duly noted that a central tenet of religion has always been morality. Certainly the morality of war weighs heavily today upon our collective societies as they presently engage the pursuits of empire abroad. Least we forget such questionable morality has long guided the imperial ventures of Western societies. Indeed, nowhere in the world are these impositions of selective morally more prominently manifest than in the occupation, conquest and colonialization of the Americas. (1) Acknowledging that modern America--the USA--is itself the imperial offspring of colonial occupation and conquest, there is ample reason to question her moral credibility in the modern world. For more than two hundred years, the United States of America has officially ignored and, though her colonial inheritance, abused the surviving aboriginal population of present-day Virginia. As a country born of recalcitrant rebels, it might be expected that the USA would fail to acknowledge the Native peoples who treated with the original British colonials at Jamestown some four hundred years ago. Notwithstanding this adolescent behaviour, there remains solemn treaty engagement between the Natives of Virginia and the Lords of the British Isles on behalf of Her Majesties' government. (2) To the extent that those treaties retain force in today's world is a measure of moral investigation that weighs upon the theme of this conference.

On May 13, 2007, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II journeyed to Jamestown, where she presided over the commemoration of the first permanent British colony in North America. It was a celebration of four hundred years of Anglo-American occupation of Tsenacomoco and Monascane--the aboriginal homelands of the Powhatan Confederacy and the Monacan Alliance--known today as Virginia. On hand to greet the Queen, there were tribal leaders from each of the eight state recognized Indian nations. Having survived four hundred years of colonial occupation, these Virginia Indian Nations met the Queen with dignity and sovereign equality. Observing the commemorative protocol, there were no protests or claims made against the Queen.

Notwithstanding the spirit of this occasion, the United States government failed to grant federal recognition to the surviving Virginia Indian Nations. Following nearly two hundred years of British colonialism in Virginia, the American Revolution gave birth to the United States of America; however, it did not divest the Anglo-American obligation born of solemn treaties made between Her Majesty's government and the Virginia Indian Nations.

Indeed, treaties were made in 1646 with the Powhatan Confederacy, 1676 with the collective Virginia tribes--including Powhatan, Monacan, and Nottaway Indians, in 1713 with the Saponi-Monacan, and again in the 1720's with these same people. Despite the American Revolution, an Anglo-American fiduciary obligation to the Virginia Indian Nations remains in force as per the aforementioned treaties. Having a fiduciary relationship with Great Britain prior to the American Revolution, the Virginia Indian Nations have never abrogated their treaty rights. As Virginia Indian land was never taken by conquest but secured through treaty, it is incumbent upon Anglo-American governments to reconcile their fiduciary obligations to the surviving Indian Nations. While the legal claim to these treaties is grounded in history and the continuity of the surviving tribal legacy, there remains a moral claim which I propose to explore with this paper.

In large measure, Britain based its colonial claim to "discovery" upon erroneous assumptions grounded in Western theology. There is the well-known Papal Donation of 1493 upon which colonial occupation was decreed in lands where no Christian Prince ruled. (3) In fact, the earliest British Charter of "discovery"--granted to Sir Walter Raleigh by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth I--directly imposes this religious caveat as a ground for colonial occupation in the Americas. …

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