With Trip to England, Va. Tribes Seek a Place in U.S. History

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 13, 2006; B01

In the history books, there is the story of Pocahontas, the lovely Indian maiden who became a Christian, married an Englishman in Virginia and sailed away with him to England. Beyond that, there is little mention of the Virginia Indians who greeted the first settlers.

It is as if an entire Indian nation that had lived here for thousands of years had simply vanished.

And so it was with a measure of astonishment to some onlookers that the chiefs of Virginia's eight remaining tribes and many of their members gathered yesterday at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington in a "departure ceremony" to bless their trip to England -- the first major delegation to make the trip since that day, centuries ago, when Pocahontas sailed.

"I thought these people were annihilated, that they'd died of smallpox or were moved," said Kimberly Harris, expressing a common sentiment, as she watched a parade of dancers in fringed buckskin, turkey feathers, porcupine headdresses, beaded bolo ties, breastplates of bone and necklaces of cowry shells and seeds. One wore a beaded Miss Chickahominy crown. The dancers stepped rhythmically to the pound of drums and chants as they symbolically spread corn, a welcoming gesture, in their dance.

Harris, 50, grew up in the District. Other than the legend of Pocahontas, she had learned little else about local tribes. "To see all these chiefs here in their traditional dress -- to see that these people are still here -- it's thrilling," she said.

Virginia's Native Americans are still here, though in greatly diminished numbers than the 40 tribes that were around in 1607 when settlers established the first permanent English colony at Jamestown. And if awareness of the Virginia Indians is all that comes of this historic trip to England as part of Jamestown's 400th anniversary festivities, to Stephen Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe, the trip will have been a success.

"People like to say that post-mid-17th century, there were no Virginia Indians," Adkins said. "We're going to dispel that notion. We've been kind of the best-kept secret in Virginia for 400 years."

The idea for the trip, as well as its funding, came from the British foundation involved in the Jamestown anniversary planning.

Although the English are interested in promoting ties and tourism between Virginia and Kent County, where the Jamestown settlers sailed from, organizer Alex King sees the same opportunity for self-definition that Adkins does. "It's about carving an identity, isn't it," he said. "And presenting themselves to the world in a way that certainly they haven't done for, what, more than 200 years."

The Virginia tribes have been so invisible, Adkins said, that although they were the first tribes the colonists encountered four centuries ago, they have yet to be officially recognized by the federal government -- unlike 562 other tribes, primarily in the West, that are considered sovereign nations. Those tribes are offered federal health, education and housing benefits.

Six of the eight Virginia tribes are lobbying Congress for that federal recognition. Their motto: "First to welcome. Last to be recognized."

Indeed, not only were they neglected in history books, but in 1924 a "racial integrity policy" virtually erased Virginia Indians. That policy, born of the eugenics movement, declared that Virginia had two races only, white and black. The policy was not overturned until a 1967 Supreme Court decision.

Adkins has been criticized for agreeing to participate in the trip to England.

"I get asked all the time, mostly by other Indians, 'How can you participate in something that heralded the demise of 90 percent of your people by the end of the century?' " Adkins said yesterday.

Many Native American leaders, in Virginia and elsewhere, also encouraged Virginia Indians to boycott all Jamestown 400th anniversary activities to protest their lack of recognition.

As a result of their protest, officials changed the name of the anniversary events from "celebration" to "commemoration."

Adkins, who is on the federal commission planning the anniversary, vehemently disagreed. And yesterday's ceremony -- an elaborate news conference really -- was the reason. For the first time since the victors began writing the history books, TV cameras, radio microphones and photographers swarmed around Virginia's Native Americans, capturing their stories and letting all the world know they're still here.

"This is a chance to tell the world who we are," Adkins said.

It is time, Adkins said, to take the story back from the historians and Hollywood directors who have portrayed his people alternatively as ignorant savages or idyllic dwellers in a simple Garden of Eden. It is time to tell the truth of Chief Wahunsunacock, whom the English called Powhatan, and his daughter Matoaka, who was nicknamed Pocahontas, or "frolicsome child," and say a prayer over her grave at Gravesend, where she died in England at age 22.

It is time to acknowledge that without the Chickahominy and other Virginia tribes, the early settlers at Jamestown would surely have died of starvation.

"We consider Jamestown the cradle of American democracy," said Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who, along with Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), attended the ceremony yesterday. "And that cradle was tended to by Virginia Indians."

Allen and Moran are sponsoring federal recognition bills in Congress to, they said, right an old wrong.

"It is time not to rewrite history but to set it straight," Adkins said.

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