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Monacan Indians Celebrate Tradition and Culture

Indian powwows - gatherings of Native Americans - have become a tourist attraction. But they are also serious business to the tribes involved.

Native American drums and singing resonate across the farmlands of Amherst County, Virginia, about 300 kilometers from Washington, D.C. Dancers as young as three-year-old Bryson are in full regalia and warming up before the grand entry of the 13th Monacan Indian powwow.

It's the time that Monacan Indians along with other tribes from across the U.S. and Canada get together to celebrate their tradition, culture and more.

"Basically what we are doing here is a social gathering, gathering nothing to do with religious or deep spiritual," said Marvin Burnette, a Vietnam veteran, who is the event's emcee. "It give us an opportunity to share native culture and tradition with audience, with the mainstream of America. Powwow, a time to come together. Everything has a meaning to it. What I do as an artist and historian."

An estimated 6,000 people have come to the weekend-long event.

"We enjoyed it very much," said Marek Gravowski, who lives in Virginia. "We think it's great with all these nice dances and I hope my kids will dance together with Indians and all the other people. And I think it's a great education for other people, people from all over the world like we, we are originally from Poland, to see how the Indian people lived and how they celebrate."

It's also an emotional time for many Monacans. Anthony Baxter, a retired professor from South Carolina, came to the powwow for the first time. "I feel like I am home, that I have come a full circle, that my ancestors are standing here behind me," he said.

The Monacan tribe's culture is said to date back 10,000 years and its original territory comprised roughly half of the state of Virginia. Today the Monacans are a small tribe of about 1,400 people located in the Amherst County area - others are scattered across the United States.

Bernard Belvin, 72, is from Texas. He left the county when he was three explains why they left the area, "Why we don't stay here? There are many, many reasons," he said. "Some don't understand but for me and my parents because they could not raise their children here."

Sue Elliott, coordinator of the Monacan Indian Museum, says Monocans had incentives for leaving- but the situation has begun to change.

"In the past, due to the racial tension here in the Amherst County area and the low income of the families, they tended not to have any drive or any hope of doing anything in the future," she said. "But within the last two years we've seen the change in that."

One sign of change: five Monacan children in the county went to college last year, a record achievement.

Sue Elliott's son, Rufus is one of the five. He is enrolled at Virginia Polytechnical Institute.

"I am very proud of being able to go to college," he said. "My family is very proud of me. It's just an opportunity they have never had. Around here it's very hard to break a habit. I think for hundreds of years, you see the schoolhouse right here, that's only they had. So to even think outside the box enough to realize that the opportunity is there now, it's not like that"

Now the Monacans have one great, shared hope: getting federal recognition of their tribe. The bill for federal recognition has been introduced in the U.S. Congress.

"The most important thing is the educational part of it," said Kenneth Branham, chief of the Monacan Indian Nation. "There are literally millions of dollars of aid for Indian people. But you have to be federally recognized to tap into this. With the recognition young people will have the doors open that right now are closed."

The Monacans are confident that federal recognition will eventually help bring more people back to the community, and preserve the tribe.