BY CHELYEN DAVIS
--Long before Wayne Newton was a Las Vegas star, he was an asthmatic boy who couldn't go out and play like other kids, and whose grandfather entertained him with stories of their Indian heritage.
It was that heritage that drew Newton to Virginia's General Assembly offices yesterday.
The entertainer canceled his Tuesday night show in Las Vegas to fly in to testify on a bill that would grant state tribal recognition to the Patawomeck, or Potomac, Indian tribe.
Based around what is now Stafford County, the tribe fed starving European colonists and was hosting Pocahontas when she was kidnapped.
Newton, a native Virginian, is descended from the tribe and has family in the White Oak area of Stafford County, where many tribe members live.
Tribe Chief Robert "Two Eagles" Green asked Newton to send a letter or video to the legislature on the recognition bill. Newton decided it would be more effective if he came himself.
"It's a passion with me," Newton said of his heritage. "I was taught to love it. To honor it."
He told the House Rules Committee that when he told his 7-year-old daughter she was part Indian, she asked if that meant she was part Indian and part human. He realized, Newton said, that he hadn't taught her enough about the meaning and value of her Indian heritage. He said maintaining the heritage of native people is important not just to the Patawomeck tribe, but to the country.
"I see the teachings, I see the museums, I see the cultures that we're all descendants from, and I think it would be a great loss to America to lose that culture," Newton said in an interview before the committee meeting.
Virginia officially recognizes eight Indian tribes. State tribal recognition involves a lengthy process of proving that the tribe existed in Virginia at the time Europeans made contact, that it has existed in some form ever since and that it is a distinct group, among other requirements.
Such proof can be difficult for tribes to gather, however. Virginia systematically wiped out their document trail in the early 20th century, passing the "Racial Integrity Act" that recognized only two races: white and "colored." The act was zealously enforced by white supremacist Walter Plecker, who ran the state's Bureau of Vital Statistics and insisted that Indians be declared "colored" on birth certificates.
The tribes that have gained state recognition received that status from the General Assembly in the 1980s and '90s. The Patawomeck didn't apply then, said Green, because many people were still afraid they would be identified as "colored."
Green's own grandfather would tell him stories of their ancestors, but make him swear not to talk about it.
"You couldn't classify yourself in Virginia as an Indian, even when I was born," Green said.
The Patawomecks applied several years ago to the Virginia Council on Indians, which is now supposed to handle applications for tribal recognition.
Green said the council told the tribe they met five of six criteria. But the council didn't think they had enough documentation that the tribe had existed as an Indian community over time.
Green said it's been a frustrating process.
"The racial purity laws made everybody disavow their heritage," Green said. "And if you were trying to conceal that fact, it's tough to produce documents."
Finally, the tribe decided they could never prove themselves to the council, and Green went to House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford.
It was Howell's bill that Newton testified on yesterday. It would grant the Patawomeck the state recognition they seek.
Green said state recognition brings a variety of benefits--for example, the tribe would have standing to protect five Patawomeck burial grounds that Green said are in the Stafford area. It would also let the tribe apply for grants, such as grant money to help them learn the Algonquin language, of which the Patawomeck language was a dialect.
"Without the legitimacy and the legal approval of the state of Virginia, we have no standing," Green told the committee. "It will validate our identity and give us our rightful place in history."
Newton showed the committee a photograph of his grandfather, in a full headdress. He also showed them a peace medal that he said was given by George Washington, and has been passed down through his family.
"That gives you some idea how far back our people go," Newton said.
The committee voted unanimously to approve the bill, although it still must go through the Senate and governor.
"I am so thrilled that this has finally come to pass," Newton told reporters afterward.
His visit caused quite a stir in the General Assembly, with reporters packing the committee hearing and aides and secretaries following him down the hall, snapping camera-phone pictures and telling each other he'd kissed them on the cheek.
Chelyen Davis: 540/368-5028