Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More About The Visit to The Upper Mattaponi: Context


This is turning into a three-part, maybe four- or five- part entry. But before I get into my statement about materiality and material culture, I’ll sketch out some context.

Our visit with Chief Ken Adams was inspired by a call from the INDIGO Design Network out of Australia, Mix08 project (visit the “project” at http://www.indigodesignnetwork.org to review the brief). I received an e-mail notice about the project and was briefly at a loss for connection. Indigenous people in the US? Indigenous isn't commonly a term we use for the Native American, or American Indian population. The term indigenous conjured up something exotic and foreign, like the Maori of New Zealand or the Aboriginal People of Australia. This summer I was in Canada and had read in the news about current efforts to provide restitution to generations of children forcibly relocated to residential schools, isolated from family and community and prohibited from speaking their native language. The personal stories are unbelievably sad.

I read the call from Australia and felt a responsibility to bring this into my Senior Seminar class. I have a tendency to approach projects outside my area of comfort. I tend to see Seminar as a place for all of us to engage in a topic, or concept, and explore it together. This has both exciting and dismal possibilities.

I made a connection with Kareen Wood, director of the Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (see links) and tireless advocate for the rights and recognition of Indians in Virginia. She arranged the visit with Chief Adams.

This is really what I wanted to write about. I tried to provide some contextual readings, about colonialism and “reading culture” (things like an annotated reading to the class of Babar the Elephant, Edward T. Hall, Edward Said, and Barthes) and specifically, about the Upper Mattaponi Tribe, also referred to in the 18th and 19th centuries as The Adamstown Band, a so many had the last name Adams. Prior to the field trip (about 45 minutes drive northwest of Richmond) the students gathered in groups to compile questions. Things as commonplace as what did they eat and where did they work, and harder questions about the Baptist Church that now forms the centerpiece of religious life. The list touched on history, present and future; and on the issues of living on a reservation, and not living on a reservation (the Upper Mattaponi own their land. It is not a reservation, which would be owned by the US government).

They asked me what I expected. I told them I really had no idea, and then amended that. I expected Chief Adams would talk with us and tell us about his experience. I expected to be able to walk around on the land and get some sense of what it sounded like, and smelled like, and looked like. I still miss the textures, and smells and sounds, and colors of the hills about Amherst, Massachusetts. As much as I’ve lived in Richmond (longer now than I lived in Shutesbury as a single person up in the hills), I’ve not been able to connect to the landscape. I expected to be visiting someplace that for thousands of years was home to the same lineage of people.

I need to ask them to write about their own expectations.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Visit to the Upper Mattaponi tribal land

Last Monday my Senior Seminar class at VCU and I piled into a few cars and drove out to the tribal lands of the Upper Mattaponi Tribe of Virginia. I drove up with Kareen Wood, director of the Virginia Indian Heritage Program at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. During the 45 minute drive (x2 for the carload that got lost but eventually found their way) Kareen spoke with me about the issues of ownership, and how the conflict between the native Americans and the Colonists created a deep clash that continues today. The Upper Mattaponi own their land outright, unlike a reservation where the land is "managed" by the resident tribe but owned by the US government. We met with Chief Ken Adams in the parking lot, where a weathered hand-painted sign marked the Sharon Indian School, Home of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, est. 1919. Most carloads of students flew right past the gravel parking lot beside the small brick building. In fact, that signage and the Baptist church next door fit in neatly with the surrounding material culture: this might have been just another few buildings on the side of a busy rural highway ---which, in fact, they were. More about this later...