Treading lightly as falling leaves, he moves quickly through the forest, tall, slim and tan as the skins he wears to protect his limbs from the brambles. Suddenly the Indian hears a rustle and swiftly draws an arrow from the porcupine-quill quiver on his back. Poised and ready, he hears it again and, as if by reflex, brings down a wild turkey not far from his home on MacArthur Boulevard.
Indians? On MacArhtur Boulevard? Yes. According to Captain John Smith's 1612 map, a village lay just below Little Falls on the narrow stretch between MacArthur Boulevard and the C&O Canal. Nearby was the rich, powerful trading center, Nacochtanke or Nacostan, known to us as Anacostia. To the south, the mighty Powhatan confederation controlled the side of the Patowmeke River we call Virginia and the Piscataway dominated the east (southern Maryland). The Cherokee were farther south (North Carolina) and northward dwelt the tribes of the Iroquois nation: the Delaware, the Seneca.
Susquehanna, Potomac, Chesapeake, Chincoteague, Assateague, Accokeek. As though immutably one with the land and water, the names remain. But long before Manifest Destiny unleashed white man's force on the Great Plains and the West, the villages and towns Smith charted had been reduced to the bones, potsherds and arrowheads that still force their way to the surface. To learn about the Indians who fished and trapped and traded where we now work and live, one must journey back to Tidewater Virginia, not far from where Captain Smith landed in 1607 to the reservations of the Pamunkey and Mattoponi, the last vestige of Powhatan's confederation.
"The hunting's not too good now that all the timberland is cut away," says Chief Thundercloud, who is alos Jacob V. Custalow.
He's standing behind the counter of the museum built in 1923 by his father, Chief Hos-ki-no-wa-na-ah (O.T. Custalow), on the Mattoponi reservation - virtually across the road from that of the Pamunkey.
Both reservations are governed by elected chiefs and tribal councils, and the houses and cars of the families who live there look much like those in nearby settlements off the reservation; the only wigwams and teepees are those outside the museum. Although the reservations are small and out of the way, they are what's left the only places to see and learn about Indians from Indians who aren't behind glass. The trip from Washington takes a couple of hours, but it's well worth it. Mattsponi has not only a craft shop and museum, but the hospitable Chief Thunderland, so it's a good place to visit, especially with children.
About 60 feet long and 20 feet wide, the chief's museum is a glorious hodgepodge where Powhatan's headdress, Pocahantas' necklace and ancient stone dishes and relics share space with stuffed birds, Civil War bullets, mason jars full of snakes, an old banjo, a Last Supper tapestry, Whistler's Mother, yellowing newspaper clippings, family picture (in and out of Indian regalia) and countless snapshots and thank-you letters from the Scout troops and school classes that have passed through the door.
Today Chief Thundercloud has donned his feather headdress and buckskin suit. He admits it's not authentic Mattoponi dress, but the children coming expect to see Indians, and Chief Thundercloud gladly obliges.
This was the first area Englishmen settled, so the Indians here were the first to go, according to Mitchell Bush, president of the American Indian Society of Washington. Those that weren't wiped out by European disease or destroyed early in the 200 years of bitter struggle with the white man joined other tribes and moved West. Today there are about a thousand Indians living in the District, about 99.9 per cent of them from elsewhere, primarily the West, Bush states with certainty.
The gentle, smiling Chief Thundercloud perhaps epitomizes the Indian as he was when the white man first found him: friendly to all and at peace with himself. "We want white people to come here and learn. The door is open. There's no discrimination here. We treat one person like another. What's important is that people learn," he says, clearly relishing his role as teacher.
"Who wants to lose his scalp today?" the chief asks the 15 Children of the American Revolution who've come from Richmond with a few mothers for his tour. He playfully grabs a small youngster. "How about you?" No, we'll let you slide."
Then, as he shows the children the scalping knife, he explains that it was the French and English who taught the Indian to scalp, paying a bounty for every man from the other side killed. It was easier for the Indian to bring back the scalp than a whole body.
Thundercloud points out a mortar he says is over a thousand years old and shows how it was used to grind corn into hominy. Holding up a hollowed-out stone, he says, "This is the Indian frying pan of yesterday." Hammerstones for making arrowheads, dishes of mussels shells, a cradleboard, cedar bow and arrows and a map made of skins are all explained in turn.
Many artifacts later, the group returns to the museum entrance, but the chief's history lession is not over. Summoning his 16-year-old son, Mark Thomas, to beat the drum, he moves the group outside to dance.
"The Indian believed that every dance he performed had a meaning. He did a rain dance so that the heavens would open up and all things would prosper. It works on the same basis as when you go to church and ask for a blessing," the chief explains.
Expertly pulling in even the reluctant teens, he tells the group to form a snake: If it holds together, they'll get what they're asking for. The drum begins and the chief winds around his snake of parkas, Redskin jackets and London Fog. The children become enthusiastic, and the snake doesn't break. After a friendship dance, they moved on to the teepees and longhouses.
Teepees were used by the nomadic Plains Indians. As they followed the buffalo herds, horses or dogs dragged the teepees.
"The woodland Indians were more blessed," the chief says."The forest gave them all necessary things - squirrel, rabbit, deer, turkey - and the land was fertile and the streams were rich with fish. Unlike the Plains Indians, they didn't have to travel, so they had stationary homes."
Finally he urges them to give thanks on Thanksgiving and every day. "We all have our difficulties, but when you taste the bitter with the sweet, you learn to appreciate the sweet," he says without a trace of bitterness. "May God bless you and come back and see us."
Chief Thundercloud is deeply religious: His father was an ordained Baptist minister and pastor of the local church, as well as chief. But the chief has not forgotten the old religion, either.
"Our ancestors worshipped the sun, moon and stars. The sun warms the earth by day so that all things may prosper, and the moon gives light by night. It governed our seasons, our tidewater and our planting.You planted root plants on a dark night and on a moonlit night you planted crops that yielded above ground," he says. "They were sure there was something greater than man. Oki, the Great Spirit."
He also likes to tell how his ancestors lived by nature, using dogwood blossoms and birds as an almanac to plant and fish by.
"My grandmother Nokomas, wife of Chief Tecumseh [George Custalow], was the best medicine woman and midwife. Whatever kind of ailment you had, she had an herb: sores, bruises, whooping cough, pain in the stomach - you name it, she had it. She got her herbs out in the marshes," he recalls. "Today you could get a lawsuit for doing that. But we had faith in my grandmother. When a person gave you medicine they did it to help you, not to hinder you," he adds gravely. "Nobody never gave my grandmother nothing. People had no money then. We traded - fish, corn - to compensate. Money is the root of all evil."
Now, most of the 75 Mattaponi who live on the 125-acre spread work off the reservation, for money, in the factories of nearby Norfolk and Richmond. In accordance with the old treaty, the land is tax-free, although tribute of turkey, fish or deer to Virginia's governor at Thanksgiving.
But Chief Thundercloud doesn't want to turn back the clock. He's glad to walk into his warm house and flip a switch to turn on the lights. "People come here and are surprised that we're not living in wigwams. That would be foolish when we know better. There is no way the Indian can go back to his original way of life. We don't have the forest anymore, and we go to school to learn. Once you know how to climb the stairs, there is no need to go down backwards."
Thundercloud also think it's for the best that the mattoponi children no longer go to school on the reservation but are bused to local county schools. He hopes the children will use what they learn to benefit the tribe and not be lured away by what they learned. But he wishes the reservation had more land to offer them.
"I try to teach my sons our culture like my father taught me and my father's father taught him. But the young got a mind of their own. They want to get out and see the bright lights. But then they find the bright lights and they're not so bright. The young always return to the tribe.
"Everyone talks about roots. The Indian doesn't have to go looking for his roots.His roots are right here."