In order to appreciate what American Indian Heritage Month means in the Washington area, it's helpful to have a healthy dose of historical perspective, a clear-eyed view back well beyond such recent developments as the Declaration of Independence.
But seeing clearly is easier said than done. After all, the 1607 "rescue" of John Smith by a 12-year-old Pocahontas stands firm as the nation's original assimilation myth, while Pocahontas's father, Powhatan, is the first in a long line of famous Native American figures turned by popular account into romantic heroes or bloodthirsty demons, or both.
In the spirit of unblinking historical perspective, then, here's a new military anniversary to memorize, to place beside July 4, 1776 and Dec. 7, 1941: March 22, 1622, the day Opechancanough, Powhatan's brother and successor, led a violent uprising against the white settlements of the Virginia colony.
Between one-fourth and one-half of the entire European population in the area was killed that day, all in the wake of Opechancanough's belief that a swift and sufficient show of force would drive the British -- their people, their guns, their religion and their diseases -- back across the ocean, in permanent retreat to parts unknown. The Powhatan chief's guerrilla techniques would have been entirely familiar to such American icons as the minutemen of Massachusetts, and his purpose -- the desire for independence, the desire to be left alone to pursue one's own way of life -- surely resonates throughout American history, Indian or otherwise.
The result of the Powhatan uprising was, of course, anything but the abdication of Virginia by the British, who instead put aside their suspicion-laced good will and brought on the soldiers, and the blankets infected with smallpox. By 1634, the first treaty ceding Indian lands had been forcibly signed. By the end of the 17th century, the native tribes of Maryland, Virginia and Washington -- including the Monacan confederacy to the west and the Piscataway, Chesapeake and Delaware to the north, as well as dozens of others -- had been wiped out in combat, driven westward or died of various contagious European diseases. Some Indians, like Pocahontas, niece of Opechancanough, were Westernized, accepting European lifestyles and Christianity.
Active armed conflict moved west, eventually far west, and American Indians became a central part of that region's rough-and-tumble mythology. Back East, in the new political and industrial centers of white America, the idea that Indians might have ever had claim to the soil became an old notion, a piece of historical grit barely dulling the blade of progress.
It's clear from archaeological evidence that Native Americans lived not only in heavily forested Virginia and Maryland but also within the wet and muggy 100 square miles that would become Washington. Perhaps too knowledgeable or wise to build their lives directly onto a swamp, the Piscataway and Nacotchtank and Patawomeck tribes hugged the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers. They existed in what was an unstable borderland between greater Indian empires, the northern Delaware and the mighty Powhatan to the south. These earliest residents of Washington were probably traders, relatively few in number and mostly peaceful, content to quarry stone along Rock Creek, build waterside villages and to allow other tribes to set up seasonal hunting or trading camps just down the riverbank.
A small core of permanent residents and a steady flow of transient tribes passing through, following the dictates of climate and economics: If you're one of those used to thinking of Washington as a place where no one really knows each other, where few stay for any length of time, take heart. It's a much older picture of our region than you might have imagined.
Between Opechancanough's uprising and the turn of the 21st century, the story becomes pure irony. The further west American Indians were pushed, the more Washington became the center of Indian affairs, and the more urgent it became to tribal leaders to make their way eastward. It's not a stretch, in fact, to say that American Indians were the most active petitioners and lobbyists of the 19th century. Native Americans came in tribal delegations from every region on the national map, always in search of the same things for their peoples: treaty, redress, government assurances.
These visits to Washington, regardless of their effectiveness, were memorable events for both sides. American Indians were photographed at every opportunity: Indian delegations riding up Pennsylvania Avenue in open-air Fords, resplendent in tribal regalia; Indian delegations trying on suits, coats, vests and ties; Indian delegations posing with such "Great Fathers" as Andrew Jackson and Calvin Coolidge. (There were even photographs of Indians posing for photographs.)
Such an atmosphere was generally the result of Native American naivete and outright cynicism, or worse, on the part of government officials. Occasionally delegations got what they wanted, but most often they went home empty-handed or with promises that wouldn't hold up, and not all Native Americans would play along with the charade.
The list of Indian leaders who visited the capital is long, but just as significant are the names of those who refused to come: Tecumseh of the Shawnees, Cochise of the Apaches and the legendary Oglala leader Crazy Horse, who not only would not travel to Washington, but who also refused to let himself be photographed or painted. These leaders felt that to visit Washington, to sit next to the Great Father and talk of peace, was an act of compromise and capitulation. Wash-
ington, for such leaders and other members of the Native American population, would always remain a homeland long lost, a bittersweet political destination of no real value to their cause.
Given American Indian history in the region, the current atmosphere in Washington seems to represent a reversal of historic proportions. The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which begins construction next spring on the last available tract of land on the National Mall, is the centerpiece of an outpouring of interest in American Indian culture and history. September's groundbreaking for the museum culminated nearly two decades of planning and brought together Native groups from as far away as Central America, Alaska and Hawaii to perform blessing ceremonies.
"We've had nothing but support" from American Indians, says NMAI public affairs assistant Leonda Levchuk. "It was an incredible, emotional experience, to see all these people with such great expectations of the museum, and what it will be able to do for the living culture of Indians." In this spirit, the organizers of Heritage Month have chosen a theme for November: "First Nations Leading the Way Into the New Millennium," and the message is unambiguous: American Indians are an important part of the historic and cultural present.
Juanita Neconie of the Indian Health Service in Rockville and organizer of several Heritage Month events, concurs: "According to the history books, the cavalry killed us and the story stopped there," she says, and adds her hopes that Heritage Month "brings to the forefront the history and current status of Indian people."
This month's activities range from the Miss Indian USA scholarship program to vigils on the Washington Monument grounds, from storytelling seminars for children to displays honoring the contributions of the Code Talkers, groups of Choctaw and Navajo radio operators who used their native tongues to befuddle opposing codebreakers in both World Wars. There will be powwows and film screenings, panel discussions and art exhibits. Almost all of it is free and open to the public.
It might seem tempting (though flippant) to dub this year's American Indian Heritage Month "the Return of the Native," owing to the construction of the new museum and a larger slate of activities than ever before. But to talk of a reemergent past is exactly the impression organizers are trying to avoid. Rather, they wish to emphasize that for the first time in U.S. history, the nation's capital may be a place where American Indians can express a realistic hope for a cultural future, rather than deal with regret and despair over a disappearing history.
ALL MONTH -- "George Catlin's Indian Gallery." On the second floor of the National Museum of American Art. Thirty-six portraits and detailed scenes of Native American life painted by Catlin from his travels through the western territories in the 1830s; free.
ALL MONTH -- Native Youth Alliance vigil at the northwest quadrant of the Washington Monument grounds. Nathan Phillips, Shoshana Konstant, and Dave Henderson, all members of the Native Youth Alliance, will erect a tepee and greet the sunrise and sunset with traditional ceremonies. "We're here to light the spiritual fires," Phillips says. "We're here to talk about nuclear waste, about gambling, about child welfare, about endangered species. We want to give a voice to all people, including non-Indians."
FRIDAY AT NOON -- "Earl's Canoe" at the National Museum of Natural History's Baird Auditorium. This film features Earl Nyholm, a member of Ojibwe Nation, as he walks through the woods on Madeleine Island, Wisc., in search of just the right birch tree to use in building a canoe. Introduction and discussion with Thomas Vennum, enthnomusicologist, Center for Folklife Programs and Cultural Studies; free.
NOV. 13 AT 6 -- "Anasazi: Sunwatchers of Chaco Canyon." Lecture at the National Air and Space Museum's Albert Einstein Planetarium (Independence Ave. and Sixth St. SW). Learn from the studies of archaeoastronomers how the Anasazi used their buildings to identify and celebrate special astronomical events, such as solstices, equinoxes and possibly the supernova of 1054; free.
NOV. 15 AT 2 -- Curator's Gallery Talk, "George Catlin's Indian Gallery." Meet in the lobby of the National Museum of American Art (Eighth and G streets NW). Guest curator Therese Heyman, wife of Smithsonian Secretary I. Michael Heyman, discusses 19th century American Indian chronicler George Catlin and his relationship with the Smithsonian; free.
NOV. 17 AT 1 -- Gallery Talk, "George Catlin's Indian Gallery." Meet in the lobby of the National Museum of American Art (Eighth and G streets NW). Paul Ruther, NMAA research assistant, gives a 20-minute talk on Catlin's painting "No Fool, a Great Fop (Kansas Nation)"; free.
NOV. 18 AT 6 -- "Little Bighorn Remembered From an Indian Perspective." Smithsonian Curator Emeritus Herman J. Viola dispels much of the mystery surrounding the battle. Viola's lecture features a book-signing and is co-sponsored by the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Associates. Ticketed event; call 202/357-3030 for tickets and location.
NOV. 23 AT 2 -- "The Legacy of Generations: Pottery by American Indian Women." National Museum of American Art Lecture Hall (Eighth and G streets NW). Set against the landscape of the American Southwest, this film features the art of American Indian master potters, who preserve a centuries-old tradition while paving the way for contemporary artists; free.
ALL MONTH -- Code Talkers Display. Monday-Friday, Nov. 8-26. Navajo Indians were used by the Marines in WWII to relay vital information by radio; the Navajo tongue, an unwritten language, would be used to code and pass messages along the front lines of such famous Pacific Theater battlegrounds as Iwo Jima and Guadalcanal. (Navajo Code Talk was the only intelligence language to remain completely unbroken by the Japanese.) For locations and times, see www2.ihs.gov/heritage.
ALL MONTH -- Indian artwork displays. Bethesda, Rockville, Long Branch, Silver Spring, Fairland Community and Aspen Hill libraries of Montgomery County. Locally and nationally known American Indian artists display their work. 301/443-3593.
WEDNESDAY AT 11:30 -- "Everything You Wanted to Know About Indians." First in a series of three Wednesday panel discussions at the Parklawn Building, Conference Room E, 5600 Fisher's Lane, Rockville. Each discussion will feature employees of the Indian Health Service discussing the day's topic in an open forum. Questions related to the discussion topics can be sent in advance over the Web: www2.ihs.gov/heritage; free.
NOV. 13 AT 10 -- Rockville American Indian Festival, at the County Executive Office Building, 101 Monroe St., first and second floors. 301/309-3166. A seven-hour event, featuring art displays, a mini powwow, Indian foods, vendors and tiny tot dancing. Speakers will discuss researching family background, and there will be a style show of contemporary and traditional Indian regalia; free.
Nov. 17 AT 11:30 -- "Day of the Iroquois." Panel discussion; see Wednesday listing for details. Parklawn Building, Conference Room E, 5600 Fisher's Lane, Rockville; free.
NOV. 18 AT 11:30 -- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration Ceremony. Features Native American comedienne Margo Boesch and the Red War Pony drummers. Parklawn Building, Conference Room G, 5600 Fisher's Lane, Rockville; free.
NOV. 22 AT 11 -- "Contributions of Native Americans to History and Society," at Walter Reed Medical Center. Edwin Strong-Legs Richardson (see box, Page 43) discusses well-known and lesser-known contributions of American Indians to U.S. history; free.
NOV. 24 AT 11:30 -- "Indian Self-Governance." Panel discussion at the Parklawn Building, Conference Room G, 5600 Fisher's Lane, Rockville; see Wednesday listing for details; free.
NOV. 9 AT 9 -- Miss Indian USA, opening program, at the Johnson Center, George Mason University. 703/538-1585. Ten contestants vie for college scholarship money in this week-long event. "It's not a pageant," says an organizer of Miss Indian USA. "It's a scholarship competition. There's no bathing suit segment here." Contestants are asked to perform traditional Native skills, to speak extemporaneously and from prepared materials and to demonstrate personal talents. The purpose of the program, the organizer says, is "to provide role models for young Indian girls or for girls of any background." The top four contestants receive college scholarships of up to $2,000; free.
NOV. 11 AT 11 -- "Contributions of Native Americans to History and Society." Lecture by Edwin Strong-Legs Richardson (see box, Page 43) at the Johnson Center, George Mason University. Discussion of well-known and lesser-known contributions of American Indians to U. S. history; free.
NOV. 11 FROM 1 TO 11 -- Veteran's Day Pow-Wow, at the Johnson Center, George Mason University. Put on by the American Indian Heritage Foundation of Falls Church, this 10-hour event features all the facets of a traditional powwow: dancing, drumming, socializing, arts and crafts sales, and food items such as fry bread, corn soup and Indian tacos; free. For more information, call 703/237-7500.
NOV. 12 AT 7 -- Miss Indian USA program, Selection and Scholarship Award. Johnson Center, George Mason University; free. For more information, call 703/538-1585.
MONDAY-THURSDAY AND Nov. 13 AT NOON -- "Dancing Stories," at the National Museum of Natural History Baird Auditorium; call 202/357-1500 for reservations and cost. Dancer/choreographer Mary Jane Bird and storyteller Len Cabral explore the common paths of their American Indian and African American heritage. Through stories and dance, Bird and Cabral explore such themes as reverence for nature, respect for elders and preparing for a responsible adult life. For grades 4-8.
MONDAY-FRIDAY, Nov. 15-24 AT 10 AND 11:30 and NOV. 20 AT 11:30 AND 1 -- "Br'er Rabbit Meets Coyote," at the Arts and Industries Building's Discovery Theater. Find out what happens when two famous tricksters meet their match, as clever Br'er Rabbit encounters Native American trickster Coyote. Jennifer Lanier and Bob Moyer bring this fictitious meeting to life, and they count on plenty of audience participation. For pre-kindergarten to third grade; call 202/357-1500 for reservations and cost.
NOV. 13 AT 10 -- "From Kachinas to Sopapilla." Learn about Native American culture through stories, activities and a sampling of foods. Includes storytelling ("Story of the Corn"), planting heirloom corn seeds, making a gourd rattle or birdhouse,learning how to make Kachina dolls and sampling sopapilla (fried bread). Participants receive recipes and suggestions for follow-up activities. For ages 5-9. Location to be announced; call 202/357-3030 for reservations and cost.
NOV. 20 AT 10 -- "Oh, the Stories We Tell! The Art of Storytelling in Keeping Family Histories Alive." Storyteller Cheryl Collins leads a workshop on how to make stories from family histories, present-day events, and everyday happenings. Participants learn how to weave these talks into stories worth passing along to future generations. For ages 6 and up. Location to be announced; call 202/357-1500 for reservations and cost.
NOV. 20 AT NOON -- "Tales From the Land: Cuentos de la Tierra," at the National Museum of American History. This En Familia-NMAH Family Day ranges from Native American hunting and gathering thousands of years ago to migrant farm labor today. Visitors listen as storytellers share tales of the land through the eyes of different American communities and then share their own family stories through workshops and crafts. Free. 202/633-6752.
NOV. 20 AT 1 -- "Stamps and Stories," in the "Stamps and Stories" gallery of the National Postal Museum Discovery Center. Create your own Native American stamp album, draw a commemorative stamp in honor of American Indian Heritage Month and explore the Postal Service's Native American stamps; free.
For More Information:
For a 24-hour recording about Smithsonian programs, call 202/357-4320. Smithsonian program information on the web: educate.si.edu/events/eventsdir.html. Information about many other events, including those in Montgomery County, can be found on the Web: www2.ihs.gov/heritage. n