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Peace: Virginia honors Indian culture

Peace: Virginia honors Indian culture

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First designated in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush, November is National American Indian Heritage Month. As the president correctly noted in his proclamation, “each of the many tribes that have inhabited this great land boasts a long and fascinating legacy of its own. This month, we honor those legacies. We dedicate ourselves to learning more about Native American history — both the conflicts and the accomplishments — and about Native American culture and customs.”

Virginians recognized the commonwealth’s Indian heritage and history last week in Capitol Square. Virginia’s governor accepts tribute from members of the state’s native tribes at an annual ceremony. A treaty signed in 1646 calls for the tribes to make an annual offering to the governor, traditionally the day before Thanksgiving. The Mattaponi and Pamunkey Indian tribes are the original signatories of the 1646 treaty, and make the tribute at the governor’s mansion every year.

Beyond this, we know that native peoples have lived in this land for thousands of years. Despite hardships brought about by the loss of land, language and civil rights, many indigenous tribes persevered and their members continue to contribute to the commonwealth through agriculture, land stewardship, teaching, military and civic service, the arts and many other avenues.

The Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities is helping to redress centuries of historical omission by creating opportunities to learn about the history and cultures of American Indians. You can learn more about this program and the Indian Heritage Trail at

I consider myself fortunate to have learned about these wonderful people as their representative in the House of Delegates. For almost eight years, working together with the Mattaponi, Pamunkey and Upper Mattaponi Tribes of my legislative district, better friendships have been built between state government and the tribal centers.

As a result of these relationships and with a sincere respect for the Virginia Indian culture and people, Govs. Tim Kaine and Bob McDonnell created by executive order the Virginia Indian Commemorative Commission. This commission, in partnership with the General Assembly, recently completed a national search for an artist. Alan Michelson, a Mohawk member of Six Nations of the Grand River and an award-winning artist, was selected based on his unique design for Virginia’s tribute monument.

The artist attributed his ultimate inspiration to Chief Powhatan’s “mantle,” which was a deerskin ceremonial cloak decorated with shell-beads sewn in spiral clusters. The tribute’s design takes on this distinctive spiral shape, which for Powhatan would have symbolized his pre-eminence and authority.

Mantle, the monument, will be installed in the gently sloping southwest portion of Capitol Square in Richmond, just north of the Bell Tower, with an eastern facing entrance. As the “front door” of the commonwealth, historic Capitol Square provides a dramatic setting with historic significance and a multitude of visitors. The square is a premier place to recognize outstanding Virginians and events, including our Virginia Indians.

Oriented to the land and incorporating existing trees in the area, the tribute combines four integrated spiral elements to create the shape of a Nautilus, a shell that represents strength, knowledge of the past, continuous growth and beauty. A five-foot wide winding footpath following the outline of the monument will serve as a labyrinth, which in some Indian cultures represents a sacred path to the home of an ancestor.

Complementing the path will be a continuous, smooth stone wall, which also serves as a bench. Natural landscaping throughout the monument will consist of a selection of perennial native plant species, including wildflowers. A meditation area, at the center of the spiral, will feature an infinity pool made to resemble the pottery associated with Virginia tribes.

The water within the pool will reflect the river culture existing within our native tribes. Decorating the sides of the sculpture are frieze-like, life-size reliefs of corn, squash and beans (the Three Sisters) as well as oyster shells from the Chesapeake and other objects significant to the region and its native inhabitants.

As visitors make their way through the path, their movements will evoke the circular dance formations found in the American Indian culture. This new communal area will create a respectful relationship with the surrounding natural world, reflecting certain spiritual values that set Indians apart from other cultures. Finally, state-of-the-art educational programs will be developed with the assistance of the Virginia Capitol Foundation to educate the community in this revered place.

The Commission will enlist private support to secure the resources required to celebrate the presence and contributions of our Virginia Indian tribes, with our hope for a 2015 unveiling. To help the commission complete this story of Virginia on Capitol Square, visit for more information. (See also for more information on efforts to recognize the genius and creativity of Virginia women and their presence and contributions to every aspect of the commonwealth’s history.)

Christopher K. Peace, a Hanover Republican, represents the 97th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. Contact him at


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