Education Opinion

Memorable Day

By Emmet Rosenfeld — May 26, 2008 3 min read
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This Memorial Day weekend, my family went to a Pow-wow hosted by the Upper Mattaponi tribe of King William, Virginia. There I gave away a boat and got a gift I will never forget.

Readers of this blog may recall that I met tribal leader Ben Adams at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival last summer when a dugout canoe my tenth graders made at Mount Vernon with the help of the Alexandria Seaport Foundation was on display near John Smith’s shallop. Ben offered the canoe a permanent home at the Sharon Indian School, Virginia’s oldest Native school and now an education center for his tribe. This Memorial Day weekend, we made it official.

Pow-wow’s are big Indian parties. A sacred circle fifty yards or so in diameter is the center of the action. Drums and chants accompany ceremonial dancing, performed by members of local tribes in their finest regalia. The comfortable patter of an MC identifies dancers and welcomes visitors. Some folks set up lawn chairs around the circle; others stroll amidst a ring of tents looking at crafts.

This particular Pow-wow was the Upper Mattaponi’s 21st annual. (With the Pamunkey, Monacan, and Chickahominy, they’re among eight recognized Virginia tribes.) It was held on a patch of tribal land off a sleepy Virginia road twenty miles west of Kings Dominion. Cars parked on the grass like at a fairgrounds; a game of wiffle ball was going near a flagpole.

As we entered, my three-year old son, who has worn grooves in his Davey Crockett DVD, was beside himself. “Are you a real Indian?” he asked the first man in regalia we met. Fortunately, it was our host. Ben wore a full feathered headdress, supple buckskin, and brandished a medicine stick tipped with a hawk’s talon.

Other men sported Mohawks, face paint, or bright fabrics, depending on their tribe and personality. In the circle, their movements ranged from the traditional shuffle step to pantomime stalking to a wounded careening. Women wore fringed, beaded dresses and danced with fluid stillness, their eyes cast down demurely.

After the opening ceremonies, Ben ushered me and the boys to the mic, where he made a gracious statement of thanks. “This canoe,” he told the crowd, “will be a part of many Upper Mattaponi Pow-wow’s for years to come and it has a home on our tribal land.”

He asked me to say a few words. I talked about the provenance of the log from which the canoe was made (a tulip poplar from nearby Warrenton, born in 1891 according to a USGS tree ring analysis). And I shared a question that inspires me as an educator: How can kids hold learning in their hands?

Then, Ben took the mic and said that the tribe wanted to express its thanks for the canoe. I expected a t-shirt or a plaque. Instead, he walked to join a line of a dozen men and women who stood facing us near the center of the circle.

With a keening wail a group of drummers began their song, and then came a gentle, beautiful dance, which featured a gesture that looked as if seed was being sewn on the ground before the dancers. For a few minutes, we were transfixed-- even my three-year old, clutching a toy tomahawk.

This was a welcome dance, Ben told me, the same one they’d performed for the Queen of England herself on the steps of Virginia’s capital when she visited around the time of Jamestown’s 400th. My only regret was that Elysha, one of my students who braved the traffic on 95 with her family, arrived too late to experience this honor.

Beyond the sacred circle, the log canoe rested in an “Indian village” with a long house, a funnel-shaped fish basket, and a smoking fire over which dangled a deer shoulder. An education day was part of the festival, to pass on culture to the youth of the tribe. Laminated posters our TJ kids made when building the canoe were tacked up nearby.

My wife struck up conversation with a high school age girl named Morgan, who it turned out was a cousin of Ben’s. She is going to William & Mary next year on a full scholarship. Standing near the recreated home of her woodland ancestors complete with dugout, it was clear that in preserving their heritage, the Upper Mattaponi were equipped to travel forward into the 21st century.

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