Indian tribes focus of talk

Published 10:01 pm Wednesday, February 15, 2017

People in Suffolk can soon learn the difference between Hollywood fantasy and historical facts regarding the region’s Native American history.

The Suffolk River Heritage Foundation will hold a special program, “Local Native Americans of Eastern Virginia” at the CE&H Ruritan Hall on Tuesday. The event, which is free and open to the public, will run from 7 to 8 p.m., with refreshments available at 6:30 p.m.

Joseph Bass will be the evening’s speaker. He will discuss how the “noble savage” myth of the Powhatan tribes of the region differs from their actual characteristics. He uses the film “Dances with Wolves” as an example of this disparity.

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“You can’t find anything helpful looking at a noble savage society in ‘Dances with Wolves,’ because it doesn’t represent any kind of reality,” Bass said this week.

Thirty different tribes were spread from northern Virginia to the Carolinas under chief Powhatan in the 1600s. Bass is a descendant of the local Native Americans that lived during the Jamestown era. He will describe the transition these tribes went through over generations.

“They were in a transition between class-based and equitable society,” Bass said. “It was relatively new in the history of the world in comparison to the class-based society that came up with agriculture thousands of years ago.”

Rather than looking just at archeological findings, Bass looks at the social sciences for insights into the tribes’ story. He considers the politics, art, economics, and other aspects of actual Native American life back then to paint a picture that can’t be seen with artifacts alone.

“We will have artifacts on display, but a typical talk is just the artifacts,” Bass said. “My talk is going to deal with a broader scope of their society and characteristics.”

This comprehensive approach is meant to fully realize how the characteristics of the former Virginia native American societies influence similar traits within the groups today.

“A lot of information that people should be aware of is just not included in the books,” Bass said. “We’re only going to make it better is if we study it the way it was.”