Quilted clouds passed over the sprig of pine that Joe (Rain Crow) Neil, second chief of the Shawnee Nation's Eagle Clan, held out in prayer, thanking Moshommes, or Grandfather Sky, and Grandmother Earth for the "warm heart that we feel" and singers who could "make our spirit fly . . . "
A bright sun and gentle winds lifted the last sign of rain and the drums began as John D. Parker, a Choctaw Indian from Oklahoma, and Andrea Thomas, a Gaithersburg college student of Delaware descent, led a group outfitted for the Indian "fancy dance."
The occasion was a festival of Indian culture that drew about 100 participants from as far away as Oklahoma and about an equal number of spectators who paid admission to watch dancing, listen to music and examine Indian crafts and artifacts.
"We're here to sing and dance and promote our heritage," which has faded in a large society "that has de-Indianized the Indians for the last 300 years," said Art Thomas, a Delaware member and Gaithersburg resident.
Thomas helped establish the American Indian Inter-Tribal Cultural Organization, sponsor of the two-day festival, which aims to raise the awareness of Indian descendants in the Baltimore-Washington area of a heritage stretched between the extremes of complete isolation and total assimilation.
Those who held to the Indian way of life were pushed from their native lands and crowded into reservations. Currently Indians are the most impoverished minority in America, with the highest infant mortality rate and unemployment of any ethnic group, according to census reports.
Those who joined the prevailing white culture, Thomas said, did so by sacrificing their past. Thomas said he hoped that by the displays, crafts, food and dance today and tomorrow, and by organizing other activities in the Washington area, his group could encourage Indians to reaffirm their culture, "and share this with our non-Indian friends."
Kathy Dalrymple, a Cherokee from Oklahoma currently living in Arlington, said, "It goes back to the basic conflict between the cultures. To sell Manhattan to the Dutch, that was the biggest joke for the Indians . How could you possibly sell a piece of the earth? The Indian measures his wealth by how much he could give and share. That's why it was impossible for him to comprehend owning land."
Some craft sellers who had traveled hundreds of miles to get here said they were disappointed at the turnout today and suspected that the nearby Charles County Fair was drawing people away from the Indian celebration at an abandoned missile site on the southern edge of Prince George's County.
Mamie Brown, an Iroquois, said even though she slept in the back of her pickup truck to save money, she still needed to sell some crafts to get back to Afton, N.Y. "I hope they do something, because I'm getting tired of eating peanut butter," Brown said.
But Vernon D. Eaton, 90, a Cherokee who said he drove down from Cheverly when he heard about the celebration, was optimistic. He watched the dancers and nodded with the steps, "I think it stirred something up."