Encounter: The Rappahannock Today
In this report by Jesse Dukes, Rappahannock chief Ann Richardson and assistant chief Mark Fortune discuss native drum and dance traditions. This is one of five separate features, produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, that aired in May 2007 and explored the lives of contemporary Virginia Indians.
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Lydia Wilson: The Jamestown 400thAnniversary is bringing attention to the history of American Indian tribes in Virginia, yet less is being said about the 4,000 Virginians who are members of Indian tribes today. In this special series of radio reports from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, leaders of Virginia’s state-recognized Indian tribes share portraits of their contemporary life. There’s no Pocahontas and no John Smith. The Commonwealth officially recognized eight tribes in 1983; the Chickahominy, the Eastern Chickahominy, the Mattaponi, the Upper Mattaponi, the Monacan, the Nansemond, the Pamunkey, and the Rappahannock. In our first report we hear from the Rappahannock, which have lived about 40 miles northeast of present-day Richmond for 300 years on land between the Rappahannock and Mattaponi rivers. We wanted to know what it means to be an Indian in Virginia today in the words of Virginia Indians themselves, so Jesse Dukes visited the Rappahannock for their perspective and he has this report.
Dukes: To understand what it means to be Rappahannock starts with the idea of a very large extended family, the kind that sees each other at church and at the grocery store and most everybody knows everybody else, some better than others. Then, combine this image with that of a small nation with a distinct history, culture, and government. Here’s the Rappahannock chief, Ann Richardson, who goes by Chief Ann.
Richardson: Native people, they go out of their community to the various cities and they work in these professional jobs all day long. They have to, when they’re in Rome they have to do what the Romans do, so they have to operate in a certain mode when they’re there. But when they come home they take off the suit and they’re just Rappahannock.
Dukes: Part of being Rappahannock is traditional dancing. The Rappahannock perform dances to teach about who they are and to represent their nation at events like the Jamestown Commemoration. Today, they’re holding practice in their dance circle, a grassy clearing set back from the road. The children and teenagers who will be the ones actually dancing are joking around and tossing a football.
Richardson: This practice is primarily done for the younger people, to bring them into the dance society, within the tribe to teach them their dances, to teach them the meaning … so that they get a sense of that within their spirit.
Dukes: Chief Ann remembers that dancing as a child created a sense of responsibility to the tribe.
Richardson: I grew up dancing and knowing dances and learning about how to build a longhouse and how to make pottery, you know, and it becomes a part of who you are.
Dukes: Mark Thunderhawk Fortune is running today’s practice, he sits with two other drummers, with folding chairs around a large drum made from hollowed-out gum tree trunk with stretched deer hides. Mark has written, with others in the drum group, many of the songs the Rappahannock sing and dance to. In the sneak-up, four boys spread out in the four cardinal directions, each one taking on the role of a hunter stalking prey. In a shawl dance, the girls walk in a line and flourish one arm at a time. Mark says all the songs have a spiritual meaning and purpose
Fortune: Like the green corn dance that we did, that’s giving thanks to the five seasons, like the harvest time.
Dukes: Mark is grateful that so many young people come out to dance. [To Fortune] What would happen if you didn’t teach them the songs?
Fortune: Well then our heritage would slowly, you know, disappear.
Dukes: Currently there are about 300 enrolled members of the Rappahannock tribe and Chief Ann would like there to be more. To enroll, you have to show genealogical proof that you are related to somebody on the 1921 tribal roll. If your family has left the tribe since then, you’re welcome to come back.
Richardson: They have our blood, we want it and they have an inheritance here and so our goal is to reclaim those people, bring them back here, teach them the things that they need to know to get grounded in who they are. Because that’s the way that you grow a nation.
Dukes: For VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, I’m Jesse Dukes.