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Trails lead to the Virginia tribes

WASHINGTON - Ever since 1992, when indigenous peoples kept faith with the ancestors and did their civic duty toward everyone else by sinking the Columbus Day quincentennial, the various festivals of foundation mythology have demanded careful treading and considerate gestures.

As Jamestown observes an ambiguous remembrance four centuries after its founding, for instance, the state of Virginia has been eager to enroll an Indian presence in its signature events. The state's embrace of an Indian past has made it possible for more people to learn more about the Chesapeake Bay nations that greeted the Jamestowners than ever before, at the signature events of Jamestown 2007 or on the Web at sites likes http://friendsofthejohnsmithtrail.org/nativeamericans.htm and http://jamestown2007.org/se-signature-eventslist.cfm, and their links.

Perhaps the apogee of these efforts appears in the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail and a companion pamphlet of the same name. The trail itself runs through four tribal and 20 interpretive sites, offering a full slate of evidence for the continuous existence, to this day, of tribes in Virginia. Eight are recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia - the Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Upper Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Pamunkey and Rappahannock - and efforts in Congress to bestow federal recognition have shown some progress in the Jamestown anniversary year.

That much alone is visibility for the tribes of present-day Virginia. Following the establishment of Jamestown in 1607, the population of Chesapeake Bay tribes (Virginia tribes included) fell by 90 percent, and most of them never held on. The Susquehannock experience is representative. Estimated to number between 5,000 and 7,000 in 1600, divided among a handful of tribal groups, they numbered only about 300 a century later. In 1763, a mob of colonists massacred the last of them. Though not altogether forgotten, they are extinct.

The surviving tribes of Virginia, marginalized by colonial history, untold hardships, a 20th-century eugenics policy that categorized them as ''colored'' and the intentionally remote locale of their homelands, are little-known even within the state. But unmistakably, a change is brewing. For a decade now, around Thanksgiving, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi tribes have presented a tribute of pelts, venison and other game at the governor's mansion in Richmond, preserving the terms of a 1646 treaty. The occasion has become a bit of a midwinter rite on the Richmond social calendar; this year's presentation, scheduled for Nov. 21, should mark a culmination of the Jamestown anniversary year's many efforts to include Virginia tribes.

But once the year is out, the state's most lasting contribution may prove to be the pamphlet issued as a companion to the Virginia Indian Heritage Trail. A project of the Virginia Council on Indians, in partnership with the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and with support from a slew of state agencies including the Virginia General Assembly, the pamphlet is simply the best of its kind. It provides four perspectival essays, biographical vignettes of Virginia Indian historical figures, a summary of the Virginia tribes, a guide to the trail sites and a chapter on resources for further learning. The knowledge packed with a light touch into 80 pages is just the kind to kindle interest in the heritage trail and the tribes that people it.

Karenne Wood and Powhatan Red Cloud-Owen tended the booth on Virginia's Indian roots at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, on the National Mall in Washington July 5 - 8. Tucked amid the festival's usual fare (blacksmithing demonstrations) and special exhibits on the Mekong River peoples of Southeast Asia, the booth proved as hard to find as a tribe at the bottom of a Virginia hollow. Wood, the Monacan director of the heritage trail, editor of the pamphlet and contributor of the essay ''Virginia Indians: Our Story,'' handed out the pamphlet and related some of the stories from its pages. Red Cloud-Owen, Chickahominy, answered questions and directed attention to different items of art and culture.

But like the tribes of Virginia, they came on strong. It seemed slightly providential that a heavy rain hit the mall at about the time they were scheduled to perform traditional dances at the festival's Mountain Laurel pavilion. Trying to keep dry, a crowd of folks filled in under the big tent, watched the fine dances with warm appreciation, heard the pamphlet recommended, saw it on display and, in quite a few cases, traipsed off under a clearing sky to get a copy.

It is also available from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities at (434) 924-3296, or for sale online at www.virginiafoundation.org.