- Associated Press - Saturday, May 9, 2015

POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. (AP) - The scent of white sage filled the air, billowing up from a ceramic bowl placed symbolically at the entrance of the flag-flanked dance arena.

A woman stood as she crafted a feathered headdress.

Men gathered around a table-sized drum. They sprinkled it with dried tobacco - the kind that grows wild along streams - as a way to show honor. It was a prayer of thanksgiving to the Creator God.

Then the music began - the slow, steady beating of the drum echoed as the voices of the elders blended with the smoke and arose.

The third annual Shawnee Spring Gathering on May 2 featured about 200 people, donning colorful and symbolic regalia, joined in worship, drumming, dancing and storytelling on the “sacred ground” of their ancestors.

Vast areas of the land where Point Pleasant now stands were once home to the Shawnee, according to Lyn Robinson, a granddaughter of Chief Cornstalk, famed for leading his people in the Battle of Point Pleasant, a resistance against encroachment on traditional Shawnee territory in 1774.

“I am his seventh granddaughter, through his son Elinipsisco,” Robinson said, “and, also a granddaughter of Puckeshinwa, who was the war chief of the Shawnee Nation. The largest Shawnee village site in West Virginia was in Mason County.”

She said the gathering is a way to “bring respect to the land and to the spirits of our ancestors.”

Richard Jordan, a Cherokee who lives in nearby Leon, took the opportunity to do just that when he knelt by the bowl and waved the sweet smoke over his head, rubbing it from front to back.

“The smoke represents a cleansing before God,” Jordan said.

“The drum represents the voice of the Great Spirit,” said Charles Van Person, a Lakota Sioux from Ohio. “It connects Mother Earth with the sky. It’s a form of prayer.”

Recognized as a “prayerful people” by the first Europeans, Randy Pratter, another Cherokee from Ohio, said the Spanish first called American Indians ‘En Dios,’ meaning God’s people.

“We didn’t get our name from Columbus, who thought he’d made the voyage to India,” he said. “They called us En Dios, and that’s where the word Indian really comes from.”

No matter if they are referred to as Native Americans, American Indians or by their tribal affiliations, the proud people who met, assisted and sometimes fought the Europeans in a clash of cultures are now, 240 years after the Battle of Point Pleasant - which ended in their defeat and Cornstalk’s retreat back across the Ohio - celebrating their culture and working to pass it along to another generation.

Robinson said it’s important to understand the difference between a powwow and a gathering.

“Powwows are not traditional for the Eastern Woodland nations, they are a gift to us from the Western tribes,” she said. “In order for us to say it’s a powwow, there are certain teachings that have to be done.”

According to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History, there are about 3,000 American Indians in West Virginia, including mostly Shawnee and Cherokee. But, many people with Indian ancestry aren’t registered.

Connie Saul Foster, who also is known as Gentle Dove, is from Oak Hill. She said she is proud of her heritage now, but that, at one time, it was dangerous to admit you were descended from American Indians.

Her ancestors escaped from the Trail of Tears, a forced march of Eastern tribes westward to reservations in the early 1800s, she said.

“They ran up into the hills and hid in the Appalachian Mountains, living in fear for generations,” she said. “We were taught not to talk to other people about being Indians and listed ourselves as ‘white’ on census documents. Now, we are proud of it and we are representing our families who couldn’t tell others they were Indians.”

Pratter said Indian gatherings like this were illegal after the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, but they began springing up after the end of World War II in 1945 as a way to celebrate the military service of American Indians.

“We really need to have people of Native American descent get together so the heritage doesn’t die off with this generation,” Van Person said.

Cornstalk’s defeat will be commemorated this year on the first weekend in October at Tu-Endie-Wei State Park, 1 Main St., Point Pleasant.

“Battle Days commemorates a great loss,” Robinson said. “It’s not a good day for any of us; it’s not a good day for him, from a spiritual level. I do the event in an attempt to bring them some joy on a sad day.”

Battle Days is a learning experience for local school children who will join in dancing and drumming as they hear the story of Cornstalk and the Battle of Point Pleasant. For more information about the event, call park ranger Doug Wiant, at 304-675-0869.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette, https://www.wvgazette.com

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