MANY MOONS have passed since Indians built their long houses and held their tribal councils in what is now downtown D.C., but Washington is still Indian country. Forget for a moment the Redskins (if that's possible) and the ritual war dances at RFK Stadium; the genuine Native Americana hereabouts ranges from Pocahantas and Hiawatha to kivas and kachinas -- even to a reservation complete with trading post.
With Thanksgiving around the corner, what better time to focus on these homegrown Americans who, more than 350 years ago, joined in the feasting after the first successful harvest by the boat people from Britain. (The Indians, of course, had earlier taught the newcomers how to plant corn.) Model guests, the Indians brought with them fresh-killed deer and turkeys to flesh out the cornfest.
So this Thanksgiving season, why not slip into your moccasins and head out, single file, with your own tribe on a tour of local Indian lore.
HOW TO SHUFFLE OFF THE BUFFALO: Buffalo were the staff of life for the Plains Indians, providing food, clothing, even shelter -- as their hides became the walls of teepees. But before they hunted with horses, the Indians had trouble catching the great beasts, and had to improvise. The Blackfoot Indians of the northwestern Great Plains, as illustrated by a diorama in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, would disguise an agile young man as a buffalo. The ersatz buffalo lured the herd to a cliff, then climbed down, while the real beasts jumped right off -- and into a trap. At the bottom of the cliff was a corral surrounded by Indians armed with bows and arrows.
In the 1830s, white hunters with more powerful weapons began an all-out war against the buffalo, and by 1890 only about a thousand of them roamed the Great Plains. Today, there are about 70,000 of them living in Yellowstone National Park and other refuges out west. Credit for this buffalo renaissance goes to zoos, which raised the endangered animals, then sent them back home to the Great Plains. The National Zoo has two buffalo, properly called American Plains Bison. Alicia and Melissa, shaggy, 1,500-pound bison, live in a corral between the Small Mammal House and the Elephant House.
Four shaggy, larger-than-life bronze bison flank Dumbarton Bridge, popularly known as Buffalo Bridge, which carries Q Street across Rock Creek Park. Underneath the bridge -- as if waiting for the buffalo to jump off -- 56 identical Indian heads in full headdress are carved in the sandstone arches facing Rock Creek Parkway. According to E.J. Applewhite's "Washington Itself," the heads were modeled from the lifemask of one Chief Kicking Bear.
BY THE SHORES OF GITCHEE-GOOMEE: Freely translated from Longfellow's poem, "The Song of Hiawatha," this could mean: "Across the street from the headquarters building at Forest Glen Annex to Walter Reed Army Medical Center." Here you'll find the legendary -- and real -- Hiawatha cast in iron, painted bronze, large as life and holding a bow at the ready. Hiawatha, whose name means "he makes rivers," was an Iroquois chief and social reformer of the 15th century. The statue, executed about 1900, is part of a highly eclectic assemblage of buildings and sculpture that once formed National Park College, a girls' finishing school. To get there, take Georgia Avenue to just beyond the Beltway, turn left on Forest Glen Road and bear left on Linden Lane.
MAKING THE RESERVATIONS: Indians once formed part of the powerful Powhatan Confederation, original rulers of what is now known as Virginia. Survivors of the two tribes now live on side-by-side reservations in West Point, Virginia, near Richmond. They farm the land and operate small museums. Visitors are welcome. The Pamunkey Museum (804/843-4792) is open Monday through Saturday 9 to 4 and Sunday 1 to 5. There is a Trading Post selling Indian crafts. The Mattaponi Museum (804/769-2229) is open 10 to 6 daily. Tours of the reservation may be arranged at the museum. To get to the reservations, take I-95 south to the outskirts of Richmond. Follow Route 360 north for about 15 miles to Route 30. Take Route 30 south to Route 633 and continue eight miles to the reservations.
IN FINE FEATHER: The eagle feather war bonnets of the Plains Indians symbolized the sun, and no one but great leaders and war heroes could wear them -- and then only for sacred ceremonies and big battles. The Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History displays one by the Sioux Indians, made about 1880, of 77 eagle feathers and strips of weasel skin. The display also shows how the Indians trapped the eagles. An Indian would hide in a pit covered with a willow-branch roof. Bait was placed on the roof, and when the eagle swooped down for it the Indian grabbed the bird.
In 1923 a Wild West Show was staged in Washington as part of a Shriners meeting, and the eagle-feather bonnet worn in the show was sold and eventually became part of the collection of eclectic collector Marjorie Merriweather Post. Its 52 feathers are set in a buckskin base. The cereal heiress kept most of her Indian artifacts at Topridge, her palatial but rustic "camp" in the Adirondacks, but the collection has recently been moved to her former Washington base, Hillwood, and installed in a facsimile of her Adirondack digs. The Indian collection here -- which also includes Apache playing cards, tomahawks and war coups (a club-like weapon), Ute cradleboards, toys, moccasins, saddles, baskets, pottery, Navajo blankets and intricate beadwork -- is open daily, except Tuesday and Sunday, from 11 to 4. No reservations are necessary to see the Indian collection, the gardens and the dacha. Admission is $2; minimum age for entry is 12. Hillwood is at 4155 Linnean Avenue NW.
The chief's headdress presented to Secretary of Interior J.A. Krug in 1947 when he was made an honorary member of the Yakima tribe is on view in a small museum in Room 1240 of the Department of Interior. The museum, which is open weekdays from 8 to 4, also includes Indian baskets, dioramas of Indian life and Navajo code talkers -- field telephones that Indians in the U.S. Marines used to baffle the enemy during World War II.
The headdress of Crow Chief Plenty Coups may be seen at the Ampitheater of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery.
COLUMBUS CALLING:, wouldn't be called Indians if Christopher Columbus had known where he was at. Columbus' colossal mistake is set in bronze in the Columbus Door on the east front of the Capitol, upon which one panel depicts the explorer's first encounter with the indigenous populace of what he thought was India. A native American also forms part of the tableau at the Columbus Fountain in front of Union Station. A young Indian sits on the left side of Columbus, symbolizing, according to James M. Goode's "The Outdoor Sculpture of Washington, D.C.," the New World, while an old man symbolizing Europe sits on the explorer's right.
THE TREK TO WASHINGTON: High-ranking Indians often came to Washington to negotiate or sign treaties. Pushmataha, a Choctaw chief, came to meet with President Thomas Jefferson in 1804, signing away some Choctaw land. Later, after having fought on the American side in the War of 1812, he returned to Washington in 1824, seeking payment of debts that the U.S. owed the Choctaws. After waiting around in vain for a meeting with President Monroe, the 60-year-old chief caught the croup and died on December 23, 1824. On Christmas Day, Pushmataha's old military comrade, Andrew Jackson, led a mile-long funeral cortege to Congressional Cemetery. The chielf rests under a memorial engraved wth his last words: "When I am gone, let the big guns be fired over me." They were.
Another Indian visitor who never got to return home was Tahzay, or Taza, son of the Apache Chief Cochise. He and 22 others of his tribe were brought to Washington in 1876 by a wily Indian ancient who made the Indians dance and exhibit themselves in sideshows to earn their travel money. Tahzay caught pneumonia and died in Washington. He is buried in Congressional Cemetery under a marker carved with the likeness of his face. The marker was placed there by the American Indian Society of Washington in 1971. Congressional Cemetery is at 1801 E St. SE. To find the Indian graves, stop in at the office and pick up a walking tour map, or call the Congressional Cemetery Association at 543-0539.
It would be nice to say that the treaties the Indians came to Washington to negotiate were signed in the Indian Treaty Room at the Old Executive Office Building, but historic research has yielded no evidence of any treaties having anything to do Indians. Officials speculate that during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, when the ornate room was used for press conferences, some irreverant pressie might have given the room this inaccurate title, which stuck. The Treaty Room, Indian or not, is on the tours of the Old Executive Office Building given by reservation only on Saturday mornings. Call 395-5895.
Some of the visiting Indians who lived to leave Washington apparently left corrupted by white man's ways. Artist George Catlin satirized this syndrome in a painting entitled "Pigeon's Egg Head Going to and Returning from Washington," at the National Museum of American Art. The "before Washington" side shows this probably apocryphal Indian in traditional dress, while the "after Washington" side shows him in dandified clothes and epaulettes, carrying a fan, umbrella and gloves and a bottle of whiskey in his pocket. Other Catlin paintings in the NMAA show Indians playing lacrosse and pursuing buffalo in the snow. There are also paintings of Indian subjects by Charles Bird King and John Mix Stanley, and sculpture by Frederic Remington and Hiram Powers.
MEDICINE MANUAL: Indians used wild plants for medicine, as well as for food, drink, dyes, charms and smoking. The plants used by Eastern woodland Indians are growing in the American Indian Garden, part of the National Herb Garden at the National Arboretum. You'll find such plants as sassafras, which was so popular as a cure for syphilis that the colonists exported it to Europe; sweet fern, which was woven into baskets to preserve fruit; sweet flag, chewed by travelers to ward off misfortune, and ilex vomitoria, a type of holly brewed into a black tea and drunk in a spring ceremony that was supposed to cleanse both mind and body.
You won't find the recipe for that tea in the American Indian Cookbook available from the American Indian Society of Washington, but you'll find recipes for many delicious dishes, such as Navajo chili. Send $6 to the American Indian Society, 519 5th Street SE, Washington DC 20003.
MAKING FORMS AND CATCHING SHADOWS: Indians describe sculpture and photography, respectively, and that's what Retha and Steven Gambaro, a husband and wife team who run an Indian art gallery on Capitol Hill, do. Retha Walden Gambaro, who is half Creek Indian, sculpts owls, bears, corn women, warriors, snakes and buffalo in stone, bronze and clay. Her husband, a retired D.C. government official, makes photographic portraits of prominent Indians, with a view toward establishing an archive of Indian leaders. The gallery is normally open only by appointment (call 547-8426), but it will be open Saturday and Sunday, December 14 and 15, from 10 to 5 for the American Indian Society of Washington Christmas Bazaar. Artists and craftspersons will be making and selling beadwork, ribbon shirts, jewelry, pottery and baskets, and American Indian food will be available at the gallery (414 11th St. SE).
MEANWHILE, DOWN IN THE UNDERWORLD: The kiva an underground ceremonial clubroom used by the Pueblo Indians of the southwest, had a hole in the floor, a symbolic opening to the spirits of the underworld. All-male bastions, wherein women were allowed only to bring food or attend special ceremonies, kivas were usually about eight feet deep and eight to 14 feet in diameter. There's a full-sized reproduction of a kiva -- plus other Pueblo artifacts -- in the National Geographic Society's Explorers Hall.
PEACE AND FRIENDSHIP: Indian peace medals in silver, bronze and gold, were presented by government agents to Indian leaders and worn as symbols of friendship and tribal rank. One struck in silver in 1825 with the likeness of President John Quincy Adams is on display in the President's Hall at the National Portrait Gallery. On the same floor in the National Portrait Gallery are paintings of famous Indians. There are three Iroquois chiefs invited to England by Queen Anne in 1710. They were lionized by the London public and remained loyal to England during the French and Indian War. There are also several portraits by George Catlin, who met an Indian delegation in Washington in the 1820s and became their historian on canvas. Catlin almost went broke painting Indians and was only able to sell his Indian paintings abroad. One of his most poignant portraits is of Osceola, a Seminole leader who opposed emigration to the west and was captured in 1837. Catlin painted him in prison, writing: "This gallant fellow is grieving with a broken spirit and ready to die, cursing the white man, no doubt, to the end of his breath." Osceola died shortly thereafter in prison, of malaria.
LONG-AGO HOUSES: The tribes who lived hereabouts when Capt. John Smith first cruised the Chesapeake Bay lived in longhouses -- about 30 feet long. The people at the Chancellor's Point Natural History Center in St. Marys City are currently building an authentic Indian longhouse, using cedar trees lashed together with rawhide, marsh grass thatching and exterior shingles of tulip poplar bark tied on with maple saplings that have been stripped of their bark with mussel shells. They're trying to get the house built before winter, and welcome volunteer labor Wednesdays through Sundays from 10 to 5. Onlookers are welcome, too. To get there follow Route 5 south from the Beltway to St. Marys City. Follow signs to the Natural History Center. For more information call Roger Klinger at 301/862-9880.
An even older-style Indian dwelling, known as a paleo-house, has been recreated at the Thunderbird Museum and Archeological Park in Front Royal, Virginia. This one is made with bent-over branches covered with hides. The museum is now closed for the winter and will reopen March 15. There is an active dig in the park, plus archeological workshops for children, families and adults. Write to the Thunderbird Museum and Archeological Park, Route 1, Box 1375, Front Royal, VA 22630.
The kind of Indian dwelling we're used to seeing in movies, the teepee, was used only by the Plains Indians. You can see one made sometime before 1875 and exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 in the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. It's made of 14 buffalo cowskins sewn together with buffalo sinew, and decorated with porcupine quillwork. Inside a teepee, the host sat opposite the door with male guests to the left and the wife and female guests to the right. It was considered impolite to pass between the host and the fire in the center of the teepee.
CATCHING THE SPIRITS: The Hopi Indians of the Southwest believed that supernatural creatures called kachinas lived half the year in the high peaks around Flagstaff, Arizona, and the other half of the year in Hopi villages. Hopi children were given dolls carved of cottonwood and dressed to look like Kachinas so they would recognize the spirits when they saw them. You can buy kachina dolls -- as well as Navajo rugs, silver and turquoise jewelry, pottery and other Indian crafts -- at the Indian Craft Shop at the Department of Interior. Hours: Monday through Friday, 8:30 to 4:30. Other Indian crafts shops include: The Silver Phoenix, Jermantown Square, 11188 Lee Highway, Fairfax, 591-5700; Turquoise Eagle, 1700 N. Moore Street, Rosslyn Metro Mall, Arlington, 525-9777; The Buffalo Gallery, 127 South Fairfax Street, Alexandria, 548-3338.
THE HAPPY QUARRYING GROUND: Indians made this area a capital of sorts was because it had the right kinds of rocks to fashion into weapons and tools. The biggest quarry and workshop in the area was in Rock Creek Park, west of 16th Street and Arkansas Avenue. That's where the Indians found quartzite rocks and pounded them into arrowheads and tools. The National Park Service doesn't like to talk about the quarry, and collecting is strictly prohibited. Yu can see arrowheads, spears and other projectile points excavated in the Potomac area at the St. Clement's Island-Potomac Museum at Colton Point, Md. It's open 9 to 4 on weekdays, 12:30 to 4:30 on weekends. Take Route 5 from the Beltway south to Route 242, and head south to Colton Point.
INDIANS IN THE CAPITOL? The figure atop the capital dome may look like an Indian, but it's actually an allegorical female figure of Freedom, whose headdress is a helmet circled by stars and topped by an eagle's head with trailing plumage. The real Indians are below and inside. On the portico of the east front, on the Senate side, there's a sculpture group entitled "The Progress of Civilization." The Indians here are portrayed as losing out to the higher civilization of the pioneers. Inside, in the Rotunda, are paintings of Pocahantas saving Capt. John Smith; William Penn making a treaty with the Indians; Governor Ogelthorpe of Georgia making peace with the Indians; and the Death of Tecumseh. In Statuary Hall, you can see Sequoyah, who developed an alphabet of the Cherokee language, enabling thousands to read and write. Sequoyah is also portrayed in bronze on the doors of the Adams Building of the Library of Congress. On the Library's main building, there are two Indians among the ethnological heads carved in the granite keystones about the second story windows. There's a Pueblo Indian on the East Capitol Street corner of the building facing Second Street. Just around the corner, next to the Eskimo, facing East Capitol Street, is a Plains Indian. In the Longworth House Office Building are nine paintings of Indian scenes by Brig. Gen. Seth Eastman, commissioned in 1867 to decorate the House Indian Affairs Committee Room. The paintings depict a buffalo chase, a death whoop, a dog dance, rice gathering, spear fishing and other activities. To see them, call 225-2761 to make sure there's nothing else going on in the committee room.
DINING ND (CEREMONIAL) DANCING: got some government patronage when the WPA started putting artists to work beautifying government buildings. The basement cafeteria of the Department of Interior is adorned with two murals. On the west end, Pueblo artist James Auchiah has painted a harvest dance, while on the east end Kiowa artist Steven Mopope has depicted a ceremonial dance. Both murals are dated 1939.
Another unlikely but good place to view Indian art is the American Indian Bank on the second floor at 1700 K St. NW. The walls hold paintings, prints and ceremonial shields.
To see the works of 25 contemporary American Indian painters -- and the painters themselves -- troop over to the Capitol Hill Hyatt Regency. The public is invited to an opening reception Friday night from 5 to 8 and the paintings will be on view Friday and Saturday from 10 to 8. On Sunday, the show moves to the Kennedy Center and is open from 1 to 6.
POTLATCH AND PRESTIGE: The Indians of the northwest liked to enhance their social standing by giving a potlatch -- a lavish feast that was actually a challenge to a rival to outdo the host. Guests would feast on salmon and seal blubber while witnessing such awful deeds of conspicuous consumption as killing slaves. Then the host would shower gifts on the guests, the most valuable being copper shields. The standard occasion for a potlatch was to put up a totem pole. Copper shields and other potlatch paraphernalia as well as totem poles are on view at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. Contemporary totem poles by Alaskan Indian artists many be seen -- and even bought -- at the Buffalo Gallery, 127 South Fairfax Street, Alexandria.
WRITTEN IN WAMPUM: The Indians of the Iroquois confederation used wampum belts as documents. When they negotiated a treaty, for example, they'd make a wampum belt -- made of white and purple pieces of whelk or quahog clam shells -- to confirm the agreement. In the "After the Revolution" exhibition as the National Museum of American History, you can see a wampum belt made to commemorate an agreement between the English and the Mohawks to reduce trade competition by taking separate but parallel roads. The belt consists of two parallel but far-apart purple lines on a white background.
Other artifacts of the Iroquois tribes in the exhibit include cradleboards, trade beads, cornhusk dolls, war clubs and a birch bark pail for gathering maple sugar sap.
INDIAN GAME, FRENCH NAME: When French trappers saw Indians playing a fierce game with a ball and sticks, they christened it "lacrosse" because they thought the stick looked like a bishop's crosier, or staff. The Indians had been playing it since the 1400s, mainly to condition warriors for combat, and to settle disputes between tribes. Games would last two or three days over miles of territory, and casualties amoung the 800 or so players were high. Chief Potomac, in 1763, used a game of lacrosse to distract British soldiers while the Indians captured a British fort. Although the rules have changed, lacrosse is still a fierce and exciting game. There's not much action right now, but come spring, there'll be plenty of high-sticking again. For information about where to see the old Indian game in its modern form, contact the Lacrosse Foundation at 301/235-6882. The foundation has a Hall of Fame and lacrosse museum on the Johns Hopkins University campus, Charles Street and University Parkway in Baltimore. It's open weekdays from 1 to 4 and weekends during Hopkins' home games.
GIFTS OF MOTHER EARTH: The Zuni Indians of New Mexico regarded the material they made their pottery from -- the clay and the pigments that made the paint -- as gifts of the earth and therefore sacred. They decorated the pots with symbols of important elements, such as rain. Tadpoles symbolized the warm rains of spring, while frogs signified the cold rains of winter. An exhibit of Zuni pottery, organized by the tribe itself, is now at the Museum of Natural History.
FULL-DRESS AFFAIR: Indians in both tribal dress and black tie will gather at the Kennedy Center Sunday, November 24 at 7 for the American Indian Heritage Benefit Gala. The gala will include Indian and non-Indian entertainment, award ceremonies and a Miss Indian USA pageant, emceed by Bert Parks. The $100 tickets include a celebrity reception; the remaining tickets are $50. Call 237-7500.
If you've got the wampum, it should be a good way to wind up your weekend of tribal pursuits.