April 13, 2012
Pamunkey Benjamin Norman sprinkled tobacco on the site of a future memorial to Virginia Indians on the grounds of the state Capitol, then lit a thick stub of sage to deliver prayers to the heavens.
For many Virginia Indians who gathered Thursday for this ceremony, their prayers had already been answered: recognition of the state's native people will now be among the 12 acres of statuary of former governors, the nation's founders and civil rights leaders.
"I think it's something that most of us felt was long overdue," said Wayne Adkins, first assistant chief of the Chickahominy, one of 11 recognized tribes in Virginia. "In light of the things that have happened to Virginia natives, a lot of it at the hands of the government, this is a step towards healing."
The Virginia Indian Commemorative Commission dedicated a small plaque near the Bell Tower and the likeness of Edgar Allen Poe where the public art project is expected to take shape in late 2013. The commission is counting on grants and contributions to finance the still-to-be-determined public art.
The commission solicited proposed designs for the tribute and they were on display within the Capitol. They ranged from the simple, such as a longhouse, to the sculpture of a heavily muscled Indian with animal carcasses draped over his shoulders, which caused some snickers.
Commission members want the memorial to reflect the spiritual nature of Virginia Indians, their contributions to the state and their long history.
"I don't know how you wrap all of that into one," Adkins said. He and others prefer to call the public art piece a tribute rather than a memorial.
"A memorial tends to talk about things that happened in the past," Adkins said. "People tend to relegate us to the past. It almost seems like we're the only people who are not allowed to advance."
Del. Chris Peace, R-Hanover and vice chairman of the commission, said the final selection will include an educational component that will help visitors better understand the role of native people from Pocahontas and Powhatan and the first European settlers to contemporary times.
"We've taken our time and we've been very deliberate in trying to identify themes and the messages that we want to send that would be reflective of Indian heritage and culture," he Peace said.
The ceremony reflected some of those symbols and the Indian spirituality.
Norman held the smoldering sage above an oyster shell and delivered a blessing to those who held out their hands to receive it. He moved wisps of fragrant smoke onto their bodies with the feather of a bald eagle. He also chanted a prayer song while lightly slapping a hand drum made of deer hide.
"It's a way to cleanse yourself. The smoke kind of brings your prayers up," said Norman, who works at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
The ceremony was also attended by state officials, including Gov. Bob McDonnell's chief of staff, Martin Kent. McDonnell, who chairs the commission, was in Canada on a trade mission.
Adkins estimates that less than 10,000 members of the original tribes remain in Virginia, but he added that there remains a sense of tribal community. He said the Chickahominy are attempting to pass on the traditions to next generations with instruction in dancing, pottery and bead work.
"We're trying to make them aware of who they are," he said. "We're part of two worlds. We live in our own communities and culture but we're a part of the bigger culture too. The kids are trying to participate in both."
A place on the Capitol grounds, he said, will help cast light on a culture and people who have felt overlooked.
"It gives us a more prominent place than we've had before," Adkins said. "It's certainly a big deal for most of us."