Tribes Tell Their Own Story Tribes Tell Their Own Story

Native performers told stories, demonstrated dances and helped people understand their cultures.

WILLIAMSBURG-You know the story, even if you haven’t heard the names. History tells us how John Smith got captured near the Chickahominy River, how the Powhatan tribe brought him to their chief and how the chief’s daughter Matoaka (or Pocahontas) saved his life. But what about the Powhatan tribe? 

In order to paint an accurate picture of how Virginia was born, all the cultures involved must have their stories told. That’s why events like the one this past weekend are important. The Jamestown Settlement put Powhatan and other Indigenous cultures centerstage in a two-day event filled with history and heritage. 

The goal here is to raise awareness. Duane Baldwin, education specialist for The Jamestown Settlement, said he wanted to draw attention to the fact these tribes still exist. 

“I want guests to understand that Native people are still here and there’s still a living culture,” Baldwin said. “There’s a lot of stereotypes out there and hopefully when they come to the powwow some of those stereotypes will be dissipated or removed.”

Telling a More Accurate and Inclusive Story

The challenge for operations like Jamestown is a lack of historical documents. Felicia Abrams, the settlement’s manager of onsite education, said when determining programming for the museum, they want to incorporate a more accurate and complicated history. That includes giving a more inclusive account of the tribes in North America before the English colonists arrived.

“The Powhatan had oral tradition, oral storytelling,” Abrams said. “So everything we know is from an English perspective. All of what we know from our primary sources are from an English perspective. So you have to think about the historical bias in there as the English are writing about it.”

Abrams said there is a movement in the museum industry to pay more attention to oral history and tradition and include that information in their exhibits as a challenge to the written record and biases of colonists. 

Abrams said she believed that as guests see different styles and dances they learn that there’s different regionalities of American Indians and that they all don’t have the same culture or traditions.

“When we do larger powwows and we have people from different areas we do talk about the eastern tribes and the eastern dances as well,” Abrams said. “Last year for the event, the head dancers were both from Virginia tribes.”

Changing the Narrative 

Part of the purpose of the event is to dispel misconceptions about Native tribes. Brothers Lowery and Emerson Begay are two brothers from the Navajo Nation. Lowery Begay has been singing and doing the hoop dance for 35 years and Emerson has been performing traditional dances of the Plains Indians tribes and playing flute for 24 years. 

Emerson Begay said he hopes that guests who come to the event learn that Hollywood’s representation of the tribes isn’t accurate. They aren’t savages or pagans like Hollywood portrays them to be. Lowery Begay seconded the statement. 

“I want them to have a better understanding and insight on just everything,” Lowery said. “Even in what’s coming up, which is Columbus Day. How can you discover something when there’s people already there? We have great respect for our culture and sometimes when people see us they expect us to be dressed [in ceremonial regalia] all the time but hey, we evolved just like everyone else. We are doctors, [we] are lawyers, we are teachers. [We] even have politicians.”

Lowery added that in a roundabout way, COVID helped non-Native Americans understand the type of restrictions Native tribes once had to go through. At one point, the federal government banned ceremonial tribal gatherings. While the reasoning behind the current bans aren’t because of government prejudice, Lowery said the impact was similar. 

Friends Kelly Dirks and Mary Smith, who’re visiting from California, came across the coast to Jamestown to learn more about America’s past and were not disappointed. 

“With all the pictures and the artifacts, it was very detailed,” said Dirks. “It focused on things I kind of remembered as a kid. But went into more detail.” 

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Native performers highlight traditional instruments and music during Saturday’s event. Photo by Arianna Coghill.

Holding an Event During COVID-19

Baldwin has coordinated the event for four years. In previous years, the powwows he organized have drawn crowds in the thousands. This year, Baldwin wasn’t even sure if they were going to have one at all.

To make the event happen, Baldwin had to scale down the main powwow event and make the usual side events a larger part of the day. 

“The events we are doing today were part of our normal powwow,” Baldwin said. “But they were like side dishes, and the powwow was the main steak. With COVID, there’s been no powwows really throughout the whole country since this started. I went to my last powwow in March before everything went sideways.”

Baldwin’s biggest challenge was to plan an event that kept both guests and performers safe. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. 

“I had to call people and see if they would be willing to come and risk it,” Baldwin said. “I got some “no’s” and some people just didn’t want to do it. And some people fortunately said, ‘Yeah, we’ll be there.’”

Lowery and Emerson Begay said this was their first performance in eight months. 

“This is the first show we’ve done since February,” Lowery Begay said. “It’s really killed us because we are in entertainment. We are not only Native American performers. I work for bands. [I] work for production. I work as a runner backstage with bands and everything. This has killed my economy both ways.”

Julia Raimondi is a freelance reporter and Arianna Coghill is a content producer for Dogwood.