Years ago, babies slept on deer hide blankets on the ground near the Powhatan longhouse as their parents and grandparents went about their tasks — grinding stones into smoothly rounded axe heads, using fire to hollow out a log canoe, grinding corn into meal with mortar and tall wooden pestle. Now the babies are grown. At an early age they learned cultural skills like bone-tooling — using a sharp stone to score a bone lengthwise, then whittling its shards into round, flat and curved needles, knives and fishhooks — and stone-tooling — rubbing rocks into axes, scrapers and knife-blades — that used to keep the members of the tribe alive, helping the Powhatans flourish in the Virginia Tidewater forests. Now, almost 400 years after the onset of English settlement, some members of the tribe are using the same skills to keep their culture alive. “I have eight granddaughters and one little grandson,” explained Shirley Little Dove, “and they all know their heritage.”
She and three of her four sons — Samuel Running Deer, Richard Redhawk and James Falling Water — are still practicing those skills, preserving the culture of the land they were born on. The family comes from the Mataponi Indian reservation in King William County near West Point. Less than 40 years after the Jamestown settlers threw a stockade around a tiny nubbin of the land ruled by the 34 tribes that formed the powerful Powhatan coalition, the situation had begun a long process of steady reversal. In 1646 the Mataponi and Powhatan tribes signed a treaty with the white rulers of Virginia guaranteeing themselves parcels of land in exchange for beaver pelts. The tribes and the state still honor that treaty today, sometimes substituting turkey, deer and rockfish.
FOR 34 YEARS, Little Dove and her sons carry their culture across the boundaries of the reservation to teach new settlers and settlers’ descendants’ the traditions of the land they inhabit. Little Dove explains that when she was 4 years old, her grandfather, the reservation’s chief, told her she was destined “to travel in all directions with the history of my people.”
On Friday, Little Dove and her family traveled to Fort Hunt Elementary School. The “history” of her family that Little Dove teaches does not come as words on a blackboard or in a book. Learning the history is seeing an Indian village nestled around a shade tree and surrounded by forest, it is the feeling of stone on stone pulled back and forth and back and forth to the rhythmic sound of wood on wood as dry corn kernels are pounded into meal. Groups of students crowded around Little Dove, Falling Water, Redhawk and Running Deer, craning their necks for a good view or straining out their arms to have a turn at tossing a feathered corncob “dart” through a target or give the crushed corn a few more satisfying beats. “Everywhere I go,” said Little Dove, “even the older children, like here, they’re interested. Through the skills they learn the history.”
Principal Carolyn Coose said the she reserved the last, longest time with the tribe for the fourth-graders, who are studying the history of their state. “It connects so closely with our curriculum,” she said. “The kids are learning just about everything that would have occurred in the land Pocahontas lived on when the settlers came 400 years ago.” She said she was particularly happy that the students were learning history with their ears, their eyes, their arm muscles and their fingers. “This hands-on experience for children is just awesome.”
Coose added that the students learned something that can be heard a thousand times, but is difficult to imagine without experiencing it. “Life as it is today is not how it always was.”
Shana Merker ran up to Coose to tell her about the Powhatan process for tanning skins into leather for clothing, “and if you didn’t know before, you don’t want to know,” Merker told her. Components in the process include the animals’ brains.
Many of the boys said they found the lifestyle appealing. Peter Shane surveyed the miniature longhouse made of eminently portable hides and curved sticks. “We could move wherever we want to,” he said wistfully.