Explore: Sustaining Indianness

Dancers of The Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe Powwow 2018.

10,000 Years of History, 400 Years of Survival

By Glenda C. Booth

When English explorer Captain John Smith sailed up the River of the Patawomeck in 1608, he encountered Native American communities that he called “Indian Kingdoms” all along the way. In today’s Northern Virginia, his crew interacted with the Moyumpse who had a community they called Tauxenent on Mason Neck in Fairfax County.

American history lessons cover Smith and the Jamestown colony’s founding in 1607, but most have given short shrift to the indigenous, thriving communities Smith found that had been on the North American continent for at least 10,000 years.

Colonization of North America has often been portrayed as bold conquests or brave souls seeking religious freedom or treasures in a new land, one of western civilization’s major advances. The Upper Mattaponi Tribe’s Chief Ken Adams sees it differently. For him, Jamestown brings “feelings of sadness…a story of sorrow and pain,” he said in a 2005 interview with Cooperative Living magazine, that “…the first British settlers were illegal aliens.” But Virginia’s tribes are proud of their heritage and will not let their history be erased. One way they sustain and celebrate their traditions is by holding annual powwows, usually between May and November.

The Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe Powwow honors 10,000 years of history and 400 years of survival. The 32nd powwow will take place on May 25 and 26 on tribal grounds in King William, Virginia, 100 miles south of Alexandria. (Smith’s journals note the village of Passaunkack in the area of today’s Upper Mattaponi Reservation on the Mattaponi River.)

Cheenulka Pocknett and Quinton Talbott. Pocknett made his shirt, glass bead vest, apron, leggings, moosehide moccasins, eagle feather fan and bustle. Talbott wears a breast plate of deer bones and beads.

The Powwow

A powwow is an all-day or multi-day gathering of dancing, ceremonies, speakers, feasting, camaraderie, and celebration. “A powwow is a spiritual thing and chance to get tribal members back together—a reason to come home,” Chief Adams believes.

When opening the Upper Mattaponi’s 2018 powwow, emcee Kay Oxendine, a member of the North Carolina Haliwa Saponi tribe, told the crowd, “This is an opportunity to express our Indianness…We are so thankful to be here after so many years.”

To start the ceremonies, the Upper Mattaponi first bless the circular dance arena by burning sage and praying. Last year, as the Turtle Clan played drum music, 50 officials and dancers of all ages entered the arena in colorful regalia, led by a four-person Vietnam Veterans Color Guard bearing flags of the United States, Virginia, Prisoners of War, and an Indian flag. One person carried an eagle staff. This grand entry “is a wonderful site to behold,” says Paul Krizek, who represents the Mount Vernon area in the Virginia House of Delegates and has attended powwows all over the country.

Watching the grand entry, led by a four-person Vietnam Veterans Color Guard bearing flags of the United States, Virginia, Prisoners of War, and an Indian flag.

In the invocation, Powwow Coordinator Joel Adams called on all to “recommit our hearts and lives to God. We play drums because you are the Lord of music, remember the indigenous peoples everywhere, celebrate a God of justice. You heard every cry, stand in the tradition of the Old Testament Amos ‘Let justice flow down.’” Governor Ralph Northam sent a proclamation lauding Native Americans’ “rich culture…an integral part of the Commonwealth.”

Dances have long been central to Native American life and dance contests are the heart of the powwow. Dancers compete for monetary prizes, often in elaborate regalia such as feather fans, headdresses, and bustles.

There are warrior dances, the round dance and the crow hop dance in which dancers mimic a crow hopping around a field. The grass dance may have originated on tall grass plains when young men danced to trample the grass to set up camp. Men doing the chicken dance mimic the mating dance of prairie chickens, wearing feathers on their heads called “roaches,” some made of porcupine hair. For the jingle dance, women’s skirts have rows of tin jingles. Originally, the jingles were made from the metal tops of tobacco containers shaped into cones. Some dances have slow, purposeful steps as people move around the circle. Some require short, quick steps. Everyone is invited to join the intertribal dance.

Children also dance and sometimes have drum groups. Last year, Virginians Kaylee Austin and Haley Light, both age 12, said they started dancing when they were six.

To many Native Americans, the drum is the most important instrument. Men often play drums communally.

Powwows also have a drum competition. To many Native Americans, the drum is the most important instrument. Men often play drums communally. At last year’s Upper Mattaponi powwow, three drum groups participated for prizes up to $1,000: Red Clay, from North Carolina’s Outer Banks; the Thunderboys; and the Turtle Clan.

Feasting is another big part of powwows. At the Upper Mattaponi powwow, 2,000 people, over two days, chomped down fish tacos on frybread and corn on the cob. Kids slurped watermelon. Oxendine touted the collard green sandwich, made of cornbread, greens, and fat back. “You eat it, you’ll think you’ve gone to heaven.”

Vendors sell arts and crafts like beadwork, jewelry, knives, blankets, clothes, tomahawks, arrowheads, feather art and whistles. Smudge sets for burning herbs like sage in a small bowl or shell are popular purchases. A sign at one tent promoting smudge sets, said, “If it burns, it carries our prayers to the heavens.”

Why Attend?

To most participants, powwows are celebrations, reunions, and tribe-building experiences.

For Elmer Adams, who grew up in King William and now lives in Fayetteville, North Carolina, the Upper Mattaponi powwow is a warm homecoming. “These are my people,” he said. His grandfather, Jasper Adams, was an Upper Mattaponi chief. Adams explained that he attended the local Sharon School through sixth grade. It was a one-room, frame building built by the tribe in 1919 and used for 50 years, including during Virginia’s school segregation era when there were “white” schools, “Negro” schools and “Indian” schools.

Cheenulka Pocknett, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, traveled to King William last year from Cape Cod, Massachusetts, especially to join traditional dancing. Why? “I want to keep the heritage continuing and make sure our history is passed down orally so little ones will understand it. Here, it’s like a homecoming. The Upper Mattaponi unite others.” He made his shirt, glass bead vest, apron, leggings, moosehide moccasins, eagle feather fan, and bustle.

Tamsye Stover from Charles City County and a Chickahominy tribe member has attended the Upper Mattaponi powwow for over 20 years. She sells her beadwork and her husband, David, his silver wares.

The Upper Mattaponi powwow prohibits alcohol, pets, and coolers.

Delegate Krizek is a powwow enthusiast. He says, “I love attending powwows and have been to too many to count. I’ve enjoyed powwows all over Indian country, across the U.S. Whether it is the Chickahominy’s over 60 years of powwows here in Virginia or the over 100 years of the annual Crow Fair powwow and rodeo at Crow Agency, hosted by the Apsáalooke in Montana, all powwows share some common features and are just plain fun—joyful social gatherings for tribal members, other tribes, and non-Indians.”

Dancers of The Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe Powwow 2018.

Not Vanishing

“Everyone should consider attending a powwow,” Krizek says. “What you learn by attending is that Native Americans are not a vanishing race but a vibrant and strong people proud of their culture and history, which they will be happy to share with you.”

Resources Upper Mattaponi 2019 Powwow, https://www.crazycrow.com/site/event/upper-mattaponi-indian-tribe-pow-wow/, including a video of 2018 Grand Entry dancers

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