Every year, the first Saturday of the month of September, the Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Rappahannock, Tauxenent and Upper Mattaponi tribes of Virginia, as well as members of the Monacan Nation come together and host a cultural festival called the Virginia Indian Festival held at Riverbend Park in Great Falls, Virginia.
Many people, including residents of Virginia are not aware that there are Indian tribes in this state. The most common perception about Native American tribes is that they live in the Southwest; New Mexico, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Texas. Little do we know that there are Native Americans tribes who still call Virginia their home and two of them, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, have reservations which were ancient before the arrival of the Europeans.
I first became aware of the festival as I was driving towards Great Falls. Along the way, I noticed a sign promoting the festival. Being the inquisitive person that I am, with a huge thirst for knowledge to learn more about indigenous cultures, this sing caught my eye right away. The next day, I made sure I was the first one in line to attend the festival.
Overlooking the picturesque Potomac River, which runs through the heavily wooded area of the park, I watched how families and individuals gathered around the circle of dance where Native American dancers prepared to dance to the beat of the drums.
The festival was small and very private; compared with other cultural festivals held throughout Virginia which are big, brash, held in easily accessible urban settings, and sponsored by dozens of private companies. The Virginia Indian Festival turned out to be the opposite: the atmosphere was cozy and fitting. This festival, which was educational in nature, included family activities such as homemade crafts, dance performances, Native American jewelry vendors, canoe making, arrow shooting and necklace making.
As I watched the Native dancers I found myself swaying to the rhythmic beat of their drum. Their voices and their songs were melodic in a transcendent way and I started to loose myself in their cadence. I was impressed by the young people (children and teenagers) engaged and educating the audience on their native traditions. For me, seeing people that age without reservations about sharing their culture is an indicator of how well the community is working towards teaching the next generation to preserve their culture and most importantly their identity.
After one of the presentations, I approached a female dancer who stood very tall and proud in her tribal attire. I asked her if I could have my picture taken with her and she gracefully agreed. After the picture I realized a line had formed and a group of attendees were waiting to get their pictures taken with the Native American dancers. Standing there, conversing with her I realized how important it is to teach our next generation about who they are. Shame and denying of one’s heritage is the consequence of what happens when an ethnic group is ostracized, oppressed, and subjugated.
Back in my student days, one of my college professors was the speaker at a cultural conference I attended. At that conference, my professor shared a thought I have carried with me since. She caught my attention when I heard her speak Nahuatl, a native language of the indigenous people in Mexico and South America. She said, “you don’t know where you’re going if you don’t know where you came from.”
I applaud the tribes who are working towards revitalization of their culture and heritage and hope that more people in this day in age will find meaning in learning more about where they came from.
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