Betting on success

The Pamunkey tribe has high hopes for its planned Norfolk casino

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Robert Gray was elected chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe in 2015. Photo by Mark Rhodes

Pamunkey Indian Tribe Chief Robert Gray lives on a quiet stretch of land in rural King William County by the Pamunkey River. But he’s at the center of a whirlwind of activity as his tribe has proposed building Virginia’s first casino, a $700 million project in Norfolk.

There are still questions about when or whether the casino will be completed, but in late September, Norfolk City Council approved a land deal that would allow the project to move forward on the city’s waterfront.

In October, Virginia Business spoke with Gray at the Pamunkey tribal reservation in King William County about the casino, the Pamunkeys’ goals and how federal recognition has affected life for the tribe. 

Under current state law, the federally recognized tribe can operate a tribal casino, which would contribute 4% of its annual net revenues to Norfolk’s coffers, paying a minimum of $3 million per year. Only Indian tribes are allowed to run tribal casinos, which typically take a long time to gain federal approval. However, in its upcoming 2020 session, the Virginia General Assembly will consider whether to allow independent operators to open commercial casinos in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond. If state lawmakers greenlight the commercial casinos, the Pamunkey tribe will have a second, faster option for building its casino.

Vinod Agarwal, deputy director of Old Dominion University’s Dragas Center for Economic Analysis and Policy, worries that if two casinos are built in Norfolk and Portsmouth, “then they’re going to be fighting with each other,” and the presence of just one casino could take income from other Norfolk entertainment businesses and restaurants, reducing the overall positive impact.

Regardless of what happens, it seems likely the Pamunkey will face some competition from other casinos across Virginia, not to mention the four existing Rosie’s Gaming Emporium locations.

A retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant, Gray was deployed to Iran to assist Operation Eagle Claw, the U.S. Special Forces’ failed April 1980 rescue attempt of the 52 U.S. hostages who were held in Iran.

After the hostages were released in 1981, Gray saw them in Greece, where he was then stationed, as their plane stopped to refuel on the way back to the United States. Gray also worked in the Virginia Air National Guard’s military technician program and has served on his tribe’s council for more than 30 years. He was elected chief in 2015.

Growing up in Philadelphia, the 60-year-old Gray had been well aware of his Pamunkey heritage on his mother’s side and visited the tribal lands during the summers. Many Native Americans, he says, moved from Virginia to other states in the 1920s because of the commonwealth’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which was enacted by the Virginia General Assembly to prohibit interracial marriages.

The law classified all non-whites, including Native Americans, as “colored.” It was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 with the Loving v. Virginia ruling, but by then, the dispersal — Gray calls it a “diaspora” — of Virginia’s tribes had been in place for decades.

With the income from a casino, Gray hopes to bring more Pamunkey Indians back to Virginia, where 85 tribal members currently live on the reservation. He wants to educate younger members about their heritage, which stretches as far back as 10,000 years and includes Chief Powhatan and his daughter Matoaka, also known as Pocahontas.

Virginia Business: A lot of Virginians know about your tribe because of your work to become federally recognized. Can you talk about that process and the part you played in it?
Robert Gray: It was probably about a 30-year process, helping them gather information, working with the lawyers, reaching out to tribal members to gain their records for enrollment issues. Basically, we had to prove our existence as a tribe, as a government entity. … We have been a government entity with control over our people and our land for hundreds of years.

VB: Was it difficult because you had to assemble paperwork that went back to colonial days?
Gray: That did make it hard. King William County courthouse records had burned during the Civil War. Our lawyers reached all the way back to … records that were in the archives in England, because our treaties were with the crown of England. Then [we were] just poring through newspaper articles, General Assembly actions and such and pulling all that together to show that we were constantly on the scene since 1607. We didn’t disappear and then come back 50 years later or something. At   least every few years, there was some record of us.

VB: What has changed since 2015, when the Pamunkey tribe received federal recognition from the Bureau of Indian Affairs? How does it impact the tribe?
Gray: Right now, basically we have greater access to federal agencies and the ability to seek funding and grants that are available only for federal recognized tribes. Those funds we’re using to improve the lives of our tribal members [with] housing aid, wells, septic systems. This is just a start. We’ve also done things environmentally to protect the eroding shoreline. … The Natural Resource Conservation Services are … doing a field study to help provide us options for land usage here in the reservation.

VB: The Pamunkeys’ federal designation is different from other Virginia tribes, which were recognized through an act of Congress and agreed not to pursue gaming interests. How long have you been thinking about casinos and gaming?
Gray: During all the years we were working for federal recognition, that was so much work, it’s a part-time unpaid job. We spent so much attention on that. Then we started looking at [casinos], and once [federal recognition] came through, we were reading and hearing and talking to other Native Americans around the country, that it’s been very successful for other tribes. Obviously, it’s not our expertise, but the federal government would oversee it and bring in the right people. It made us feel comfortable that this is something that we could pursue and then work with Virginia and localities as well to make sure that we did something that was good for the tribe and good for Virginia.

VB: How did you choose Norfolk as the location for the casino, out of all of your tribe’s ancestral homelands?
Gray: There were no clear lines between tribes. Ancestral homelands are where we live, where we hunted, trapped, traded with other tribes.
So, for all the tribes of the Powhatan confederacy — Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Rappahannock — ancestral homelands would safely include Virginia east of [Interstate] 95 from the Potomac River down to North Carolina, even into North Carolina, because of the fall lines. All of our people relied heavily on the waterways for sustenance, for travel.
Norfolk just fit. … We feel confident because what we want to bring to Norfolk — in partnership with the city of Norfolk — is a project that will benefit Norfolk and the surrounding communities. If my children were walking down the streets of Norfolk wearing a T-shirt saying “Pamunkey Indian Tribe Member,” I want people to be able to come up to them and say, “Thank you.” I truly believe that will be the case, that we will help the city and they will help us. It’s a mutual partnership for their benefit and for ours.

VB: The General Assembly is also pondering legislation that could result in other commercial casinos opening across Virginia. How do you feel about that?
Gray: The state will do what they do, but we bring a different perspective. We’re local. We’re not a nameless corporation where all this revenue just leaves Virginia. It stays here in Virginia. It stays here to provide jobs, but the revenue is invested back in the community. We want to buy local. We want to use local vendors, local contractors. Then, even with the revenue that the tribe makes itself, it’s basically spent here for projects that we want to do for ourselves. We want to help the other tribes in Virginia in any way possible. We see that as being good neighbors.

VB: Do you have a preference of building a federally approved tribal casino — the only option available now — or a commercial casino, which the General Assembly could allow? What are your thoughts on that?
Gray: We’re looking at the two paths. We started down the tribal casino path because that is what was open to us. That is still a goal. … [However,] the federal process will take a little bit of time.

VB: What specific benefits do you think that the tribe will receive if the casino moves forward and is successful? What are your plans for the income?
Gray: Improving the lives of our tribal members. … In the ’20s, with the Racial Integrity Act, a lot of Pamunkey Indians, a lot of members of other tribes, left Virginia. I call it the diaspora. We would like to encourage those people to come back to Virginia with some of the revenue to buy additional land for housing for our people.
We [also] see other economic opportunities. We want to pay for housing, education. I would love to send our young people to college and have them come back and work for the tribe. Those are the type of things that we would like to do for benefiting the tribe, [while also] helping the local community with good [casino] jobs, with excellent benefits.

VB: How many people are part of the Pamunkey tribe?
Gray: We have a little over 400 enrolled citizens. Like most tribes throughout the country, we have a core group of members that date back to history … [and] you have to show you’re a descendant. We also have a social connection to the tribal body. If they don’t have it now, it’s something that can be built and such. That’s primarily because we don’t consider tribal citizenship a racial issue — it’s political; it’s a sovereign right. We’re also not just a genealogy tree. Our tribe is a community, and that is what we focused on [instead of just genealogy] — a community.

VB: The Nansemond tribe, which is based on the Nansemond River and lives on land in Suffolk and Chesapeake, has voiced some concerns about the casino and preserving their own history and heritage in the region. Have you had any conversations with them?
Gray: Several months ago, I traveled to Chesapeake and met with their chief and council, and we had a discussion. Basically, we in no way want to interfere with their telling of their story in history. We would love to help them in the future to do that. If and when we have the means, we’d like to help them, like we would any other tribe. The boundary issue — like I said, I believe [the] Nansemond [tribe] could [also] claim up to this part of the state as their ancestral homelands.
We don’t see any one tribe as having exclusionary land, because that’s more a European model of boundaries: “I own this land; you own that land.” We just shared the land together. Going forward, that’s what I would say — that we continue to share in any way possible.

VB: Does everybody in your tribe support the idea of the casino?
Gray: It is looked upon favorably. We’ve explained what is going on. We’ve explained the limitations of federal funding [for the Pamunkey reservation], and I would like to get off the federal funding if at all possible, which is why the federal government established the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Its primary purpose is for tribes to achieve financial independence. When you think federal money, there’s so much red tape. I would almost say for every dollar you get from the federal government, there’s a significant portion of that dollar being spent to track and report that dollar.

VB: How do you plan to raise the $10 million needed to purchase the casino land?
Gray: We found an excellent partner … [Tennessee billionaire and venture capitalist] Jon Yarbrough. … He’s been involved in Indian gaming for decades. We did have a whole lot of people and companies approach us [and] we approached people, but we never felt comfortable with anyone until someone introduced us to Jon Yarbrough. He did his due diligence on us, we did our due diligence on him, and it’s an extremely friendly, personal relationship. I am fully confident that he will help us achieve our goals.

VB: Are there improvements to the Pamunkey reservation that are high priorities for you in the next five years, even before the casino is finished?
Gray: First, our members and their housing needs. Other things like our museum, it was built about 1980, and it needs a makeover. Our fish hatchery, our old schoolhouse that was built in 1908 — in 2008, it had a cosmetic makeover, but it still needs some additional structural work because we want to maintain that history of the tribe.
Internet service is dismal. That’s a project we’re working on with the Middle Peninsula Planning District Commission — the tribe serving as an internet service provider in the entire Middle Peninsula region. That’s both an economic opportunity for us, and it [would give] us high-speed internet.
Our TV is satellite for the most part. Our internet is satellite or cell service, but cell service is dismal. In my house, if I’m in the front of the house, I pick up a tower in King William, barely, and if I’m in the back of the house, I pick up one in New Kent, barely. I’ve had discussions with Congressman Rob Wittman. He has a broadband task force.

VB: You talked a little bit about the waterways and protecting them. What are some of the concerns?
Gray: Shoreline erosion was one, and we’ve been working with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science on uplifting the shoreline. We’ve been having conversations with the [Virginia Commonwealth University] Rice Rivers Center, partnering with them. The issues we’re seeing is our shad, that our people have used for sustenance for 10,000 years, the shad populations have been so low for a number of years. [The state of] Virginia ran a hatchery, but even Virginia has given up the shad hatchery business. It just hasn’t been working.
We see a problem with blue catfish in the river … gobbling up all the shad … [and] also the pollution in the water and fish advisories because of the mercury and PCBs [polychlorinated biphenyls]. We’re also working with the Environmental Protection Agency, gaining certification to manage our own environmental program that will give us in the federal government’s eyes equal standing with the state.

VB: If the casino goes forward, when do you think it would open?
Gray: I really can’t set a timeline, but the Virginia [casino] legislation can move things forward a little quicker. We’ll see what happens in this General Assembly session.

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