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Pow wow: Native American heritage on display


by Tom Chillemi

For America’s native people, a visit by another tribe, the change of seasons and the corn harvest were all reasons to have a pow wow, a sort of homecoming with dancing and feasting.

Pow wows have evolved into a way to preserve Indian heritage and history and keep their culture alive.

“Even though we have regular jobs and are part of society, we are preserving our heritage and passing it on to our younger people,” said Frank Adams, an elder of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, which will hold a pow wow on May 23-24 in King William County.

The Upper Mattaponi Indians, who now number 540, hold their annual pow wow on 32 acres. Their center is Indian View Baptist Church and Sharon Indian School, which is the last Indian school operating in Virginia and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

“The land is sacred to us because that’s where our ancestors grew up,” said Adams. And, it’s just a few hundred yards from where they are laid to rest.

Most pow wows are fundraisers for Virginia’s tribes, which are trying to get federal recognition. “It’s our major fundraiser for the year,” said Adams, “and an opportunity to preserve and educate people that we are still a tribe.”

Adams, 55, is co-owner of Glenwood Golf Course near Richmond, but still is rooted in his Indian heritage. “I don’t know how to be anything but an Indian,” he said. “It’s my responsibility to make sure our younger generation knows their heritage and can keep it going after I’ve moved on.”

In every culture, as time goes by, some traditions go away unless there are efforts to preserve them.

“We’ve survived 400 years since Jamestown, and we’ll be able to survive forever as long as we can keep our young people interested and educated,” said Adams.

Two tribes, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, signed treaties with England, before America was a country. By the time of the Civil War, these Indians had been in contact with whites for 200 years, Adams noted. “It would have been very easy to blend into mainstream society, but we will always be Upper Mattaponi Indians.”

Adams can trace his family tree several hundred years. But without a written language, his ancestors couldn’t keep records.

Captain John Smith wrote their first chapter starting in 1607 at Jamestown. Before that, history and heritage were passed down through stories told by older generations.

“All elders are storytellers,” said Adams. “Some stories didn’t make sense when I was young, but, now I understand they were teaching me to carry the baton of family knowledge and native ways. I didn’t realize they were doing it at the time.”

For Frank Adams, the teachings of his elders still echoe at every pow wow.

Knowledge of native ways

Adams said Mattaponi probably means “river of high banks.” In their language, “Matta” means “bad,” and probably refers to the eroding river banks.

Contrary to popular belief, woodland Indians of the eastern United States were never teepee builders, like the western nomadic Indians who had to roll up their houses and follow the buffalo, noted Adams.

East Coast Indians built villages. Farmers grew corn, beans and squash. They trapped, hunted and fished. “We cleared land and built semi-permanent villages and moved when soil was depleted,” he said.

The Virginia Indians lived in “long houses.” Young, supple trees were bent into an arch forming a frame like the future Quonset hut. The Indians would char the bottom of the bent saplings where they touched the ground, which stopped the bugs from eating the bottom of the framing, Adams explained.

River Indians would weave reeds to make mats that were placed on the top and sides of the frame. Mud would be smeared on the mats. As mud dried and fell off the mats, or if the mats tore, another layer of mud was applied. “It’s like the house you live in now, there’s always something to fix,” said Adams.

The bark of tulip poplars was also used as the covering for the long house.

It was common for females to continue living with their parents even after having children. As families grew, another section would be added to the back of the house. Adams believes John Smith probably thought, “What a long house,” when he saw the Indian dwellings—and the name stuck.

There was a hole in the top of the house for smoke to escape.

A fire was kept in the house at all times. “Fire is really hard to start, so it’s much easier to keep it going,” said Adams.

Another crop, tobacco, was later a cash crop for settlers. But Indians used tobacco only in ceremonies and celebrations, said Adams. The term “peace pipe” came from the fact that when another tribe of Indians visited, if they would smoke with the host tribe they were friendly and at peace.

Visitors to pow wows may see working villages, animal hides on drying racks, grinding stones for corn, and flint napping, which is the art of making “points” for spear and arrows or axe heads.

Log canoes were made by using a small fire to char the center of a large log. Then the ash would be scraped out. “They had to be careful not to burn through the log, and they used mud to keep the fire away from areas of the log they didn’t want to burn.”

Spiritual symbolism

Indian pow wows are filled with spiritual symbolism, said Alice “Elk Moon” Call, who is part Metis, a Canadian tribe.

First, the spiritual leader of the host tribe blesses the ground where the pow wow circle will be located, which makes it sacred ground.

The circle entrance faces east, where the sun rises. Those who enter the circle do so as if they were going into a church. Most Indians sprinkle a pinch of ground tobacco on the ground before entering as a symbolic gesture. Indians only smoke tobacco in ceremonies.

Dancers use a “smudge” to purify themselves spiritually before entering the circle. The smudge is made from four sacred herbs—tobacco, sage, sweet grass and cedar. They are placed on an alabaster shell and ignited so a smoldering fire produces smoke. A bird wing is used to fan the smoke around the dancers.

The pow wow opens with the grand entry led by a color guard and followed by visiting chiefs and sometimes princesses.

The men and women who are the lead dancers enter next, to drumming and singing. The drums represent the heartbeat of Mother Earth.

Next, men in buckskins, traditional dancers, men in cloth, “fancy dancers” and grass dancers enter the circle.

Some women are “jingle dancers” and wear outfits with 365 jingles on them. At one time the jingles were snuff cans, but have been replaced with a small can made for that purpose. 

Many of the songs are sung in Lakota, the language of a western tribe that retained more of its culture than the eastern tribes.

A flag song is sung, which is like a national anthem.

A “veterans song” is also sung to honor all military veterans. After that, the veterans line up and the dancers file out to thank them for their military service.

The power of the drum
Alice “Elk Moon” Call, who is part Metis Indian, explains Indian culture.

Alice “Elk Moon” Call of Gloucester didn’t know she was part Indian until she started going to pow wows. “The drum was very powerful, it woke up something inside me,” she said.

An Indian reinforced her feelings when he said, “I’ve seen the way the circle takes you over.”

From her first pow wow, Elk Moon felt she was fulfilling a prophecy made by Hopi Indian mystics in the 1800s. “There will be a time when it will be the children of the white eyes who will braid their hair and wear the clothing of the red children.”

That prophecy is still coming true, said Call.

Call is descended from a Canadian tribe known as the Metis, a French word for “mixed blood,” due to their European influences.

Some Indians are considered a “lost generation,” because there was a time when Indians were being assimilated into American culture, many against their will.

In the early 1900s, those who would have been her grandparents remembered the time when Indian children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools “to learn to be white,” said Call. “My grandparents rarely talked about the unpleasant times.”

About 20 years ago, the movie “Dances With Wolves” opened people’s eyes, said Call. “It made it cool to be an Indian.”

Call, who operates Turtle Island Animal Sanctuary, is available to speak about Indian heritage. She can be reached at 804-695-9579 or .

Learn Indian heritage at a pow wow
An Indian dances in his elaborate regalia.

The 22nd Annual Upper Mattaponi Pow Wow and Festival will be held on Saturday, May 23, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The grand entry is at noon. The pow wow continues on Sunday, May 24, from 1 to 5 p.m.

Admission is $5 for adults, and $3 for children (6 through 12). All proceeds support The Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, whose tribal grounds are located on Route 30, one mile southeast of Route 360 in King William County. Contact Frank Adams, pow wow coordinator, at (804) 769-3854 or , or the Upper Mattaponi Tribal Center at (804) 769-0041.

On June 6-7 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the 13th Annual American Indian Festival will be held at Chesapeake City Park in Virginia Beach. Admission is free. The celebration features American Indian storytelling, traditional dancing and demonstrations. There will be Native American jewelry, crafts and food. Contact Earl Bass of the Nansemond Indian Tribal Association at 252-771-2476. The tribe’s website is

The Mattaponi Indian 13th Annual Pow Wow is Saturday, June 20, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It’s Virginia’s only pow wow on an Indian reservation. Held on the Mattaponi Indian Reservation in King William County, the pow wow features American Indian dancing, drumming, food, arts and crafts. The grand entry is at noon. Adult admission is $5. Children under 6 are admitted free. This is a family event; no drugs or alcohol allowed, and no pets. Bring lawn chairs. The rain date is June 21.

For more information, contact Mark Custalow, pow wow coordinator, at (804) 769-8783 or 769-4447.

posted 05.20.2009

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