It’s getting harder these days to overlook or dismiss all of the hype and hoopla for Virginia’s Celebration 2007, the elaborate, statewide event that will commemorate the 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown. The task is made all the more difficult, if not impossible, knowing in our hearts that even after nearly 400 years of exploitive interaction and close contact, Virginians have yet to demonstrate even a modicum of genuine respect for the indigenous first Virginians.

The irony is that while our success at launching the U.S. empire from its modest toehold at Jamestown was in no small part due to critical and timely assistance from the Native Americans, we have yet to acknowledge the full scope of either their culture or their accommodation toward us in the early 1600s. Nor have we tendered unto them the long-overdue respect they deserve as a sovereign people.

One would hope that with four centuries of shared history, Virginians could begin to update their collective historical perspective to a more honest record of what actually occurred on both sides when our cultures clashed head on in the early 1600s.

Unfortunately, that seems unlikely to occur any time soon, and for reasons that should shame us all. One has only to witness the ongoing negotiations between Newport News Waterworks and the remnant Native American tribes of southeast Virginia to realize that not that much has really changed in the traditional balance of power between powerful men of European descent and the indigenous first Virginians.

In essence, the City of Newport News is attempting to arrive at an acceptable dollar value that would “mitigate” for resident Mattaponi and Pamunkey tribal governments the impacts from the loss of traditional properties and resources that would be lost forever by the damming of Cohoke Creek, a Pamunkey River tributary. The proposed dam would create a 1,500-acre water impoundment adjacent to the two tribes’ modest reservation land holdings in King William County, flooding forever a forested wetland valley drainage between the two tribes namesake Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers.

In addition to the outright destruction and loss of hundreds of acres of artifact-rich and productive forested wetlands, the proposed interbasin transfer scheme would withdraw up to 75 million gallons per day (mgd) of fresh water from the tidal Mattaponi River and store it temporarily. From there, the river water would be pumped again, this time through a pipe bored under the Pamunkey River bed, and emptied into a receiving creek that feeds the City of Newport News’ existing system of seven reservoirs, strung out across the lower peninsula’s sprawling urban and commercial service region.

Those not familiar with liquid volumes of this magnitude might benefit from a description using a more familiar scale: 75 mgd translates to a minimum of 50,000 gallons of water per minute, nonstop, being pumped out of the Mattaponi River, or about 3 million gallons per hour. Given that the largest milk-hauling tractor trailer truck permitted on our highways holds a maximum of 8,000 gallons, imagine filling up one of those massive trucks with water every 10 seconds, six tractor trailers every minute, 360 trucks an hour, nonstop, around the clock, just to get close to 75 mgd, the permitted rate for a single day. That’s 8,640 tanker trucks every 24 hours; enough to form a solid line of 40-foot tanker trucks more than 65 miles long, easily the distance from the Walkerton Bridge to downtown Newport News. Every day.

With precious few limitations, the permit that Newport News so aggressively seeks from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would allow the withdrawal of Mattaponi water at that daily rate unabated for 50 years.

So yet again, history repeats itself. Almost 400 years ago, European settlers, looking to export their land-ownership-based culture to the New World, were confounded by the Native American’s culture of shared natural resources and seasonal movements across the tidewater landscape. When the dust finally settled, the complete and total British ownership of Virginia was formally instituted and the indigenous Virginia tribes were relegated to reserved lands along the tidal freshwater Mattaponi and Pamunkey rivers.

Today’s development-focused urban planners, infrastructure developers and resource regulators still “don’t get it.” It is symptomatic of the chasm between our cultures that Newport News fails to grasp that for Native Americans, rivers and wetlands are themselves cultural properties, inextricably and forever linked to their traditions, history and way of life.

Somehow, mitigation doesn’t seem any more appropriate than attempting to calculate a price for a sovereign peoples’ historic legacy. As a Virginian, I cannot help but feel ashamed and embarrassed.

Newport News’ opening bid, if you will, has been reported in the media to be about $1.5 million, presented in the form of a bundled “package deal” for equal distribution among the Pamunkey, Mattaponi and Upper Mattaponi tribes, amid the expectations that the funds would be used for museum expansions, the curation of artifacts, fish hatchery improvements, interpretive exhibits /activities, or other essential tribal facilities.

Final negotiations are under way in an attempt to wrap things up for a mid-June or July Decision of Record by the Army Corps of Engineers Norfolk District Office as to whether or not to issue the Section 404 permit that Newport News needs to move forward.

What looms ahead then for Virginians is the specter of unparalleled national humiliation when 2007 rolls around.

Imagine that you are a visitor to Virginia eight years from now. After visiting the impressive National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., you decide to head out to Virginia to experience those places “where it all began.” Armed with your new insight into all things native, you plan a trip to the riverfront Mattaponi and Pamunkey reservations in King William County, only to find yourself in the middle of a massive and destructive public works project being carved into the fragile landscape of Cohoke Valley, smack dab in the middle of the two historic reservations you are planning to visit. Horrified, you quickly realize that the historic and traditional lands of the Native Americans that you have just learned about are gone forever. As you head for the Williamsburg area, you are left to ponder how this could have come to pass in Virginia, which boasts that destination-based tourism is its singly largest industry and employer.

Virginians, long-accustomed to their role as genteel hosts of the nation’s most visited coastal community, will be facing a vexing problem. Instead of congratulating themselves on four centuries of achievement, they may very well be scrambling to explain how they idly sat by and witnessed this insult to the first Virginians by allowing their cultural legacy to be mitigated as part of Newport News’ insatiable thirst for cheap water. Again, it would be incumbent upon Virginia to explain how, even after 400 years, it could still not resist the continued exploitation of Virginia’s unique indigenous people.

Other scenarios quickly spring into mind for those of us enraged by this disturbing and sad circumstance. These outcomes are crafted from the principles of hospitality, fair play and enough is enough. We can still take decisive action, even now.

One option would be to let Newport News mitigate the final obliteration of these tribes’ legacy, albeit with a monumental and sincerely appropriate settlement — say $400 million — something in the order of $1 million for every year of our settlement in their midst. In today’s world, this equates to a level of revenue that numerous Native American tribes in other states can expect to generate from gambling operations. This amount would also be enough to realistically benefit the tribes; specifically in their efforts to either expand or improve their modest land holdings, or to even relocate nearby in a fashion befitting their stature, greatly assisting their reunification efforts.

A second option is for the Corps to put an end to this sorry spectacle by denying the permit for the ill-conceived King William reservoir. All who have been touched by this enterprise are sick of its excesses, distortions, half-truths, endless spinmaster press releases and the rest of it.

In late March, the Board of Supervisors of King William County, the project’s host county, voted to request that the Corps require a Supplement to the Final Environmental Statement to determine whether or not their partner, Newport News, really needed the water!

What clearer signal the rest of us might need to energize us to appeal to our senators, congressmen, Gov. James Gilmore and the Corps is the subject of much speculation as the election season edges closer.

Either way, there may never be a better moment or more appropriate symbolic opportunity for us to express our sincere respect for the first Virginians, those Native Americans who made it possible for Jamestown’s ragtag band of starving colonists to evolve into the world’s most powerful and democratic enterprise.