The George Washington Birthplace National Monument is treasured as a threshold to America’s history. The site had been home to three generations of George Washington’s family prior to his birth and is the site of the burial grounds of his father, grandparents and great-grandparents. This weekend, the folks at the national monument offer a glimpse into an even more distant history as they host American Indian Heritage Day, introducing guests to the customs and culture of those who lived on that land for thousands of years before the first Colonists arrived.
“We want to remind people that, prior to the European settlement of this area, all these tribes were already fixed on the land. They hunted and fished and lived and died here,” said chief of interpretation and visitors’ services Scott Hill. “We wanted to recognize the true first Virginians.”
To bring that vision to life in an engaging and exciting way, representatives of the Rappahannock Tribe will give a presentation of their history and demonstrations of drumming and dance that will include an invitation for visitors to join in the performance.
“This is the fourth year we have hosted the Rappahannock Tribe and in the past I have seen nearly 70 adults and kids participating in that big dance,” said Hill.
The group is one of 11 tribes recognized by the state of Virginia and were in the national spotlight earlier this year when Sen. John Warner officiated at a ceremony in which a portion of the land bordering the river at Fones Cliffs was given back to the tribe. As she received a piece of stone from the cliff symbolizing the property, Rappahannock Chief Anne Richardson talked about the important role the parcel would play in conveying the tribe’s legacy to new generations.
“We will take our children back to the river and convey those ancient traditions and knowledge to them, [including] canoeing, the medicinals that come off the river and the foods that come from the river that sustained our people here for thousands of years,” she said. “It’s not just for our people. We want to teach everyone about the river and wildlife.”
Chief Richardson’s goal of introducing young people to nature and culture through a living show-and-tell is, likewise, part of the mission of the National Park Service, which maintains and cares for the land at the birthplace monument. Guests will have an opportunity to see heritage breeds of sheep and pigs as well as flowers, herbs, and crops such as flax and tobacco that would have been at the site during George Washington’s childhood. In addition, they can explore the enduring gifts of nature through a hike along a 2-mile nature loop or down a trail to a beach on the shore of the Potomac river.
Wildlife at the site includes eagles, heron, red and gray foxes, cotton-tail rabbits, raccoons and river otters, and the park service provides a track guide so young visitors can identify any evidence they may come across regarding four-footed and feathered residents of the area.
In addition, the park hosts a Junior Ranger program for visitors of age cohorts 7-8 and 8-12. Those who complete the suggested activities while exploring the historic area will be awarded the George Washington Birthplace Junior Ranger badge.
“We want families to come out and experience nature and understand a connection with it that many kids may be unaware of. Even in their drive to the site on Route 204, children will see fields of crops growing and realize that our food does not begin in packages at the grocery store,” said Hill. “They will also understand that many different people make up the story of our country, and that story can’t be told without tribes such as the Rappahannock who were here long before any of our European ancestors arrived.”
Big thanks to Collette Caprara, a local writer and author.