Tribal chiefs make pilgrimage to the grave of Pocahontas

Published 1:26 am Sunday, July 16, 2006

American Indians from Virginia traveled to the burial place of Pocahontas on Friday as part of celebrations marking next year’s 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the oldest English settlement in the New World.

The delegation of 50 solemnly filed into St. George’s parish church for the private ceremony to honor their fabled ancestor, who acted as an ambassador between British settlers and her Algonquin kinsmen in the early 17th century.

“We’re here to acknowledge the fact that the people of England have protected the remains of Pocahontas — they have honored her memory and I think they’ve just done due diligence,” said Chief Stephen Adkins of the Chickahominy tribe.

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The moment was tinged with sadness for Adkins, who noted that when the first English settlers landed in 1607, there were 35 to 40 Virginia woodland tribes.

“There are now eight,” he said.

The visit was part of a a series of events on both sides of the Atlantic to mark the anniversary of Jamestown’s settlement. The Virginia Indians reveled in the chance to do the journey in reverse — from the New World to the old one — and to show off the finer points of their culture.

Amid blustery summer winds, spectators lined the manicured hedges of an Elizabethan manor lawn at the town’s Cobham Hall to watch as nine men from the delegation — most swathed in fringed buckskin tunics, turkey feather bustles and deerhide pelts — circled around a drum, pounding in unison and singing the names of the tribes.

The rest of the delegation of men, women and teenagers formed pairs, marching and dancing around a fountain in the garden to the drum beat — the ritual a colorful focal point of a welcome ceremony in the southeastern English town of Gravesend.

British municipal leaders wearing business suits sipped tea and wine, snapping photos of the dancers with personal cameras.

Lord Watson of Richmond, the co-chairman of the Jamestown 2007 British committee, stressed the longtime ties between the two groups as he spoke after the dance, hoisting his glass of wine.

The tribesmen presented local representatives with gifts from their home state. including a traditional Pamonkey clay pot and a large bundle of dried tobacco leaves, the cash crop of Virginia that came to attract English investors.

“It is tradition that when you go to visit an elder or a dignitary, you respect them by bringing tobacco — one of the four sacred herbs,” said Kevin Smith, a member of the Nansemond tribe.

“It is only fitting that since we have been welcomed by this country, that we respect and honor them in the same way,” Smith said.

After the formal welcome ceremony and the dance performance, members of the delegation crowded onto the manor’s halls for traditional English summertime food.

Rappahannock tribesman Jacob Fortune-Deuber, 15, sat in one of the manor’s libraries in a rigid 17th-century Windsor chair in his full feather-and-deerskin regalia, eating strawberries and cream out of a silver bowl.

“This is a chance for all the tribes to get together — we haven’t been together in a long time, and here, we get to come back and see our roots,” Fortune-Deuber said. “It’s just a great gathering, and everyone is very hospitable.”

According to popular lore, Pocahontas saved New World explorer Capt. John Smith from execution in 1607, and legend has it the two later became lovers. About five years later she was kidnapped by the English to be used as a pawn in dealings with her father Powhatan, chief of the Algonquin Nation.

Pocahontas converted to Christianity in 1613 and married tobacco planter John Rolfe a year later. The couple sailed for England in 1616, but the newlywed princess became ill and died of an undetermined illness the next year.

Though historians know little about her, fictionalized accounts of her life have appeared in art and media for centuries — most recently in a 1995 animated Disney musical and live-action historical thriller, “The New World,” released in January.

“This is where Pocahontas is buried,” Fortune-Deuber said, standing in the churchyard shadow of his ancestor’s bronze statue. “We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”