By PAMELA A. D’ANGELO FOR THE FREE LANCE–STAR
There are still a few weeks left of a special exhibit at the Jamestown Settlement in Williamsburg where the native tribes of Virginia share personal cultural treasures and stories in a main exhibit of historic photos.
Debra Martin is a citizen of the Pamunkey Tribe. Some of his relative’s photos are part of the exhibit.
“This is a photo of Uncle Paul here. He was chief from 1930 to 1937,” she said, showing a photo of her great-uncle Paul Miles paying his respects annually to Governor John Garland Pollard.
But his most prized possession in the exhibit is his mother’s badges. Ceremonial dress made by her mother in the 1930s, it has been passed down through three generations.
His mother wore it to ceremonies, powwows, and to the Dog Mart in Fredericksburg, where she and other native communities were allowed to participate in the annual market.
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“I remember this dress when I was a child visiting my grandparents on the Pamunkey Game Reserve. It was in an old wardrobe and I’ve always been fascinated by it,” she said. said “My mum never talked too much about wearing it. And that’s something that she kind of left behind, I think because when she was growing up, it wasn’t cool to be Indian.
Jamie Helmick is responsible for special projects and programs. She said the exhibit was part of an increased effort by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation to include Indigenous peoples in telling their stories. A reminder of this former exclusion stands in the middle of the exhibition. One of eight replica ceremonial posts borrowed from an old outdoor exhibit. It was not carved by a native.
“FOCUSED” is a visual experience of the past 100 years of the tribes of Virginia and their resilience despite laws to erase them. There are contemporary photos by Occaneechee tribesman Tracy Roberts, and photos from the 1940s and 1950s by Baltimore Sun photographer A. Aubrey Bodine. The earliest photos are by anthropologist Frank Speck, who photographed native tribes in Virginia from 1915 to 1924.
“Frank Speck wanted to document the tribes of Virginia and the thriving culture they had at that time,” Helmick said. “So he took as many pictures as he could of the tribes in Virginia.”
The exhibit highlights the resilience of the tribes here during and after a century of racist laws that attempted to erase their culture. Among the striking works of art is a sumptuous turkey feather coat woven in the 1930s by Mollie Adams of the Upper Mattaponi tribe.
“Part of this movement with Speck and everyone who fought the Racial Integrity Act was trying to get tribal people to reclaim a lot of their lost traditional arts,” Helmick said. “So this was the first attempt at making a feather coat that hadn’t been done for some time.”
Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act made it illegal to identify as a Native. Today, tribal members tell stories about their histories and cultures, on videos at the exhibit and online on the museums website.
The art here includes pottery, gourds and flutes. Visitors can walk through a vertical glass display case that houses quilts by Denise Lowe Walters. They tell the story of his tribe, the Nottoway.
These decades of discrimination have led the tribes to hide their identity. Helmick said many of the tribesmen had a habit of not sharing with the general population that they were native.
“So you can, for decades, probably talk to a lot of Virginia Indians when you drive through Virginia, but they probably would never refer to themselves as that because they just got into the habit of not saying what their race, unfortunately.” she says. “I think the tribes are definitely at a point where they’re trying to move past that and they’re very proud of their culture and you see a lot of cultural re-emergence, like you’ve had over the last 400 years, but especially today’ today, now that they feel more comfortable sharing their culture with people, you see a big resurgence of it.
The exhibition will end on March 25. If you can’t make it there, you can always go online to see talks given by tribal members about their tribal art and stories.