The Native Americans who live on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation welcome visitors, but do not go out of their way to court them.
An easily overlooked sign on a two-lane road halfway between Richmond and Williamsburg points the way 10 miles down a twisting lane. About 85 people live in brick ramblers and two-story frame houses tucked among woodlands and farm fields.
The 1,200-acre reservation holds only a few hints of the Pamunkeys' illustrious past. A modest stone monument at the entrance commemorates their most famous ancestor, Pocahontas. Images of her legendary father, Chief Powhatan, adorn markers outside a small museum. His burial mound lies beyond the railroad tracks. About 5,000 people, mostly schoolchildren on field trips, visit annually.
Now, this tiny, low-key tribe is about to get more attention in a day than it used to attract in a year.
The Pamunkey are among the first of 24 tribes chosen from around the hemisphere to be featured in the exhibit halls of the Smithsonian's new National Museum of the American Indian. For a section called "Our Lives," illustrating contemporary communities, curators have videotaped Pamunkey digging clay for pottery, milking eggs from shad and boating down the Pamunkey River.
Like other tribes in Virginia and Maryland, the Pamunkey are thrilled that, at last, a museum dedicated to Native American history and culture has been built on the Mall.
"We're very flattered and honored that we were selected," said William P. Miles, an administrator for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and chief of the tribe. "We all got a strong sense that they wanted to tell our story the way we wanted it told. We're anxious to see how they put it together."
Across the Washington region, Native Americans are anticipating that the museum's opening on Tuesday will be a milestone. They are descendants of the indigenous people who had the first contact with the English colonists who established a satellite settlement in North America at Jamestown in 1607. But today, many of them believe that their history has been all but forgotten, reduced to little more than a caricature.
The museum opens at a time when Native Americans in both states have been waging unsuccessful campaigns for government recognition. Six of Virginia's eight tribes are seeking federal recognition, which would make them eligible for various benefits, but their efforts have been blocked by lawmakers who fear it could lead to casino gambling as it has in some states. Maryland's half-dozen tribes have been repeatedly rebuffed for state recognition, denying them access to some scholarships, health benefits and business contracts.
With these battles as a backdrop, the National Museum of the American Indian, with its sinuous architecture and soaring atrium sited on the country's most ceremonial ground, strikes many as a long-overdue recognition of their existence and contributions.
"We're very supportive of the museum," said Karenne Wood, a Monacan storyteller who heads the Virginia Council on Indians and has worked for the museum compiling research about the tribes in Maryland and Virginia.
"The museum has taken a proactive stance in working with native communities and making sure the native voice is heard. It's very exciting. For so long, educational material presented that Indians were a thing of the past, and if they exist at all they're still wearing feathers and living in teepees. The museum helps dispel that notion. It really showcases the fact we're still here. The overall message is, we survived the past 400 years, and we're still a viable and contemporary people. We're adapting, but we're keeping our traditions."
Acutely aware that the museum is in the back yard of their ancestral homelands, many area tribe members say it gives them a strong sense of proprietorship. "I'm extremely proud of it being here," said Kenneth Branham, chief of the Monacan Nation. "I wouldn't feel the same way if it were in Arizona."
Together with the state's Department of Historical Resources, Virginia's tribes plan to hold a reception to welcome other tribes to Washington for the opening. The event will be at the Cannon Office Building on Monday.
"Native American protocol dictates that when Indians come to your country, you are there to greet them," said Ken Adams, chief of the Upper Mattaponi. "This is a very significant event. Indians from all over the country will be there. It's probably the biggest thing for Indians that ever happened in Washington, and we want to be a part of it."
They have been a part of it from the beginning.
While the museum was on the drawing boards, researchers sought out indigenous people and solicited their ideas.
"During a four-year consultation process, we went all around Indian country," said Thomas Sweeney, a spokesman for the National Museum of the American Indian. "That's what makes the museum special."
As a result of their input, the main entrance to the museum faces east. Many of the Native American communities in the region oriented their dwellings to the east to face the rising sun.
In another bow to area tribes, the major open space in the museum has been called the Potomac, a word in the Algonquin language for a place where goods are brought. Museum officials recognize that the museum is on a former wetland traversed by tribes from both Maryland and Virginia.
"This is the beginning of the story. This is where America's history begins," Sweeney said. "For the local tribes, there is a great pride in it being here. In some ways, they are the host tribes."
The collaboration is also evident outside, on the museum's grounds, where four stones called Cardinal Direction Markers are placed as a metaphor for the hemisphere's original inhabitants. The stone near the eastern entrance was dug up and trucked to Washington from Sugarloaf Mountain in Western Maryland. The other stones were selected by tribes in Hawaii, Canada and Chile.
After the stones were laid, Sewell Fitzhugh of Maryland's Nause-Waiwash band was invited to chant a prayer at the dedication.
The open-arm approach is refreshing -- and in sharp contrast to the perception among many Native Americans that the part they played in the region's history is overlooked, except in November.
"It's been very welcoming," said Fitzhugh, chief of the Nause-Waiwash. "In the state of Maryland, we're like turkeys. They want us when it's Thanksgiving. And the rest of the year, they'd like us to just go away. Without recognition, we constantly have to fight for our identity, fight for our culture, fight for our people. It's a constant battle to be counted for who you are."
Hopes are high that the museum could herald a new era for Native Americans. "With the blessing of the stones, they show they're not going to play these games about whether you're officially recognized or not," Fitzhugh said.
For many, the museum is an intensely personal experience. Warren Cook, assistant chief of the Pamunkey and the son of a former chief, has donated dozens of family photographs. Fitzhugh hopes to hear tape recordings made in the 1920s, when Smithsonian researchers taped his grandmother and other members of the tribe just before a new road was built.
Branham is looking forward to driving four hours to Washington with his grandchildren to squire them around the museum. He visited during the ceremony with the directional stones this summer, and pronounced himself "blown away" by the architecture.
"I think all Indians will be proud of it," he said. "We're especially happy and proud the Pamunkey will be represented. I've been in close contact with the chiefs, and I haven't heard the first person say, 'Why them?' "
Some of the Pamunkey, however, pondered that very question when Smithsonian researchers first approached them four years ago with a proposal to feature them.
"I was surprised they thought of us," said Cook, who served on a tribal committee to help with the museum planning. "We're so small. But there's a lot of history here."
The Pamunkey were once the most powerful tribe in the Powhatan Confederacy, an alliance of 32 tribes under the great Pamunkey chief Powhatan. Their treaties with the English crown date to 1646 and 1677. To this day, the tribe's chief, whose Indian name is Swift Water, dons his deerskin and headdress to present venison or turkey to the governor of Virginia every Thanksgiving. From the tribe's perspective, the ceremony continues its treaty with the state and solidifies its sovereignty.
What most intrigued the Smithsonian researchers was the way the Pamunkey maintain age-old traditions against the onslaught of modernity. Today, the reservation is a bedroom community, with most of its residents working at jobs an hour away in Richmond or Williamsburg. But many of their customs date back generations.
The tribe is governed by the chief and a tribal council of seven men. No women can run. Elections are held every four years. The men vote with kernels of corn in favor of a candidate, or butter beans signifying rejection. Disputes between neighbors are settled by the tribal council, with no appeal.
Joyce Krisvold, a retired nurse, runs the tribal pottery school, using the same designs as their ancestors. Jeff Brown, a construction worker, digs up the pottery clay on the banks of the Pamunkey River.
Smithsonian researchers made several trips to the reservation to make videos and take photos. The exhibit focuses on the river, which they photographed in every season as Pamunkey worked and played around its waters.
"They were interested in our lives," said Bob Gray, a maintenance superintendent for the Air National Guard who also worked on the museum committee. "They wanted to know how we are today, and how we got to be that way."
Adams, whose Upper Mattaponi tribe is just up the road from the Pamunkey Reservation, believes the museum's display of their lives will generate more interest in all Virginia's Indian tribes. The Jamestown 2007 commemoration of the colony's founding 400 years ago is also on the horizon. With Native Americans accustomed to having to fight to be heard, he said, it feels as if their time has finally come.
"For so many years we were hunkered down in a survival mode," he said. "For 250 years, they tried to obliterate our culture. Now they're building a monument to us. It's just amazing."