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Thousands drawn to intertribal cultural festival

HAMPTON, Va. - In the center of a crowd of thousands of people, American Indian women from the eight state-recognized Virginia Indian tribes performed the Green Corn Dance.

In a circle, each of the dancers held their hands to demonstrate the holding of a pot of corn and dropping corn to the ground.

The dance represented one of many dances Virginia Indians of Algonquian and Siouan tribes performed in several ceremonies to honor the corn harvest each year, according to Chief Gene Adkins of the Chickahominy Indian Tribe - Eastern Division.

''Corn was used as a gift,'' said Adkins, noting that the Green Corn Dance was a ceremony held to ask the Creator to bless the corn so the tribes would have a good harvest.

Adkins told the audience at the Hampton Coliseum during the July 21 - 22 American Indian Intertribal Cultural Festival that corn also served as an element of trade between the tribes and the English.

The two-day event, part of the Jamestown 2007 Commemoration, served as a signature event to celebrate the heritage of Virginia's state-recognized tribes. Seven visiting tribes participated in the event, which drew a crowd of more than 10,000 people during the course of the first day, according to event organizers.

Visiting tribes included members of the Mandan, Hidasta and Arikara Nation; the Lumbee; the Nez Perce; the Sault Ste. Marie Chippewa; the Osage; the Seminole; and Jemez Pueblo.

As dancers took a break, Adkins gave a brief history of the Virginia tribes, noting that seven of the state-recognized tribes - the Pamunkey, the Mattaponi, the Upper Mattaponi, the Chickahominy, the Chickahominy - Eastern Division, the Rappahannock and the Nansemonds - are Algonquian; and one, the Monacan, is Siouan. The tribes settled along the rivers in what is now called Virginia, and many of the rivers in Virginia bear the names of the tribes still remaining, Adkins said.

On both days of the festival, tribes presented each other with gifts. The Virginia Indians presented the visiting tribes with handmade pottery that had the logo of each Virginia tribe etched on the bowls. The pottery was made by Christine Custalow, Mattaponi, using the traditional coiling method used by Powhatan Indians for thousands of years.

Jacqueline Johnson, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, spoke at the festival and sang a song to the visitors in her native Tlingit language.

''From the moment you walked into this building, you could feel the spirit,'' Johnson told the audience.

She asked visitors to stand with the Virginia Indian tribes as they seek their federal recognition.

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During a break, Johnson said she thought it was important for other tribes and the visitors to learn about the Virginia Indians' story of their struggles to remain tribes.

''Most tribes don't have the details of their story, but as they do learn the history of the Virginia Indian tribes, other tribes say they can't believe this happened in the United States,'' Johnson said.

Now living in Washington, D.C., Johnson said she's familiar with Virginia tribes' work toward achieving federal recognition.

''The Virginia tribes have had various kinds of political strategies, which mean they need to have voting citizens to engage with Congress to support their recognition,'' she said.

In addition to the 15 tribes participating in the event, American Indians from other nations joined in during the intertribal dances. At the sidelines of the coliseum, August Little Soldier of the MHA Nation sat watching the intertribal dance.

Little Soldier garnered attention when some heard his grandfather scouted with George Armstrong Custer in the late 1800s during the Indian Wars.

''My grandfather died with Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn,'' said Little Soldier, 93. ''I never did know my grandfather.''

At one time, Little Soldier said he had his grandfather's military equipment, but after having loaned it for exhibits, he said eventually, the equipment was lost.

Little Soldier said he enjoyed watching the dances and learning more about the culture of the Virginia Indians.

For Virginia Indians, the festival brought attention to their history and culture and enabled them to share it with other American Indians.

Keith Smith, Nansemond, joined the dances and said he sharing his culture with other American Indians and the public served as a highlight of the festival.

''I'm very honored that the members of other American Indian tribes accepted our invitation and came,'' Smith said. ''They helped make the event a success. The reason why I wanted to invite the tribes was so they could see that we exist and learn about our culture and take that back with them to share it amongst the other tribes outside of Virginia who couldn't come. I don't think people realize who we are.''