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At Jamestown, there’s still time to see a special exhibit celebrating the resiliency of Tribes in Virginia

Debra Martin
Pamela D'Angelo
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Debra Martin stands with her mother's hand-made regalia that has been worn by three generations of women in her family.

Debra Martin, a citizen of the Pamunkey Tribe, is reminiscing about vintage photos of her relatives that are part of the exhibit called FOCUSED. "There’s all pictures of him throughout the ages. This is a picture of Uncle Paul here," she points out. "He was a chief from 1930 to 1937."

FOCUSED is a visual experience of the last 100 years of Tribes in Virginia and their resilience despite laws to erase them. There are contemporary photos by Indigenous photographers and photos from the 1940s and 1950s. The earliest photos are by anthropologist Frank Speck, from 1915 to 1924.

"Frank Speck wanted to document the Virginia Tribes and the thriving culture they had at that point in time. So, he took as many photographs as he could of the Tribes in Virginia," says Jamie Helmick.

Helmick is manager for special projects and programs. She says the exhibit is part of an increased effort by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation to include Indigenous people in telling their history. A reminder of that former exclusion stands amid the exhibit. One of eight replica ceremonial posts borrowed from an older exhibit outside. It was not carved by an Indigenous person. But the resilience highlighted by this exhibit is not far away. An opulent, turkey feather mantle woven in the 1930s by Mollie Adams of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe.

Turkey Feather Mantle
Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
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A close up of the Turkey Feather Mantle woven by Mollie Adams of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe during the 1930s.

"Part of that movement with Speck and everybody else who was fighting the Racial Integrity Act was to try to get tribal members to reclaim a lot of their lost traditional arts," Helmick explains. "So, this was the first attempt at making a feather mantle that had been done in some time."

Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 made identifying as Indigenous illegal. Now, tribal members are telling stories of their histories and cultures, on videos at the exhibit and online. The art here includes pottery, gourds, flutes and clothing worn for ceremonies. Visitors can walk around a vertical glass case that encloses story quilts by Denise Lowe Walters. They tell the history of her Tribe, the Nottoway.

Story Quilt
Pamela D'Angelo
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One of several story quilts made by Denise Lowe Walters (Nottaway) that tell the history of her Tribe.

And there are cherished family heirlooms. Debra Martin stands beside an exhibit of her most prized possession- regalia. It’s a ceremonial dress her mother made during the 1930s, that has been passed on through three generations. "I remember this dress from when I was a child visiting my grandparents on the Pamunkey Reservation. It was in an old wardrobe and I was always enthralled with it. My mother never talked too much about wearing it. And it was something that she sort of left behind, I think because during the period when she was growing up it was not cool to be Indian."

Those decades of discrimination led to Tribes hiding their identities. "A lot of the tribal members got in the habit of not sharing that they were Native with people," Jamie Helmick says. "So, you can, for decades, probably talk to many Virginia Indians as you move through Virginia but they probably would never designate themselves as such because they just got in the habit of not saying what their race is, unfortunately. I think that the tribes are definitely at a point where they’re trying to move past that and they’re very proud of their culture and you see a lot of cultural reemergence, as you have for the last 400 years, but especially today, now that they feel more comfortable sharing their culture with people, you’re seeing a great resurgence of it."

The exhibit will close March 25. Until then, you can still go online to view lectures by tribal members on their art and tribal histories.

Click here for the exhibit

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.