Walking in Two Worlds: Nellie Brings Messages from Indigenous Peoples to the United Nations
In commemoration of the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9th), the Global Partnerships Office has been featuring a four-part interview with Nellie Adkins (Chickahominy, Diocese of Virginia), one of fourteen Anglican/Episcopal delegates who participated in the 11th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues as part of the Anglican Communion’s delegation. The interview has been running on this blog every Thursday since August 9th. Last week, Nellie discussed the progression of her role as an advocate both at the United Nations and back home. During this final week, she share with us some of the personal messages, wishes and dreams of other indigenous peoples that she brought with her to the UN.
Global Partnerships: You have brought some wonderful things from back home to share with us…so Nellie, you’re from the Chickahominy tribe – the things that you’ve brought to share with us, are they from that tribe?
Nellie Adkins: Actually, they are not. Although the Chickahominy town or the Chickahominy tribe is part of the Powhatan confederacy, aka Pocahontas’s people. Pocahontas Matoaka was a Powhatan Confederacy woman, she was originally from a place called Uttamusack, which in our language means “a sacred place” and that is today is known as the Pamunkey Reservation or in our language, Pomonkie. Pamunkey Reservation is the oldest reservation in the United States of America; it dates back to two treaties with the King of England… We had wampum belts, they were treaty belts, the old moniker or the old saying was “the wampum belts don’t lie”. So if you had a wampum belt in your hand, that was your word. That meant that you spoke straight. What happened was I, as a consultant to Warren County Public Schools in Northern Virginia, teach seminars to teachers who are required to recertify every year. I teach all of the Virginia Indian units of instructions. One of my teachers is a man [whose] mother is an Eastern Abenaki person. …When he found out I was coming to the United Nations, he called his clan mother and they wanted to gift me with a bag, so they made this bag for me. It’s made of mink, and there’s beadwork here, and there are beaten pennies on it. Inside the bag were several items, and the wampum belt is in here. It’s wrapped in red calico which is traditional; it means that it’s sacred…there are many wampum belts, and many of them have different meanings. [This particular wampum belt] means that because I am native and white, that I walk in two worlds, and also because I was coming to the United Nations, I’m walking in two worlds…It was gifted to me mainly by the Eastern Abenaki people [and] a consortium of New England native indigenous people.
GP: And it was especially for this particular UN Permanent Forum?
NA: When I spoke, they wanted me to have this, to tell people that my words were straight…and so this belt means that I walk in two worlds. It was kind of like God sending me a message: you’re a Christian and you’re indigenous. And that’s walking in two worlds. And that’s the only thing that matters to me. You know, this too shall pass. The [United Nations] building is there now, but it may not be always there.
[There was also] a native woman in the group who had been mistreated and the focus of a lot of our conferences. She sent this bag that she had made – it’s a leather bag and it’s filled with kinickkinick, which is our sacred tobacco. Kinickkinick can be dried and you can either put some in a dish or you can just lay this pouch on the table and they can put their hands on it and it’s like a solemn oath or a blessing. So to me that meant a lot, because they said that this woman had been really badly damaged as a native woman and that her heart was to send this to me. She doesn’t even know me.
I felt like I had the good wishes and the prayers of all of those people through my student, one of the teachers who is indigenous, and they said, “We cannot send you to the United Nations to represent the Episcopal Church and our people without sending a wampum belt.” So someone made that wampum belt for me…It’s quite a message. So everywhere I went, I carried it with me. I didn’t speak at the UN – I didn’t feel that that was my place at this time – but the point was that I had it, I took it in, when I was smudged at one of the panels, I had them smudge the bag as well. Because I just thought, you know, this is a sacred place.
GP: What a wonderful gift. If you think about it, you do bring so many people with you as a delegate. Not only their experiences, but they combine with your own, and then yours combine here with those of so many other people around the world, and then you take that home.
NA: And then you take that home. It’s a circle.
GP: And you have something else to show us…
NA: We had some conference calls prior to the event, so we had a lot of people say, “Well, I‘ll bring this, and I’ll bring that”. A bark rattle is the main item of percussion for our people. And so every late spring we usually slip the bark of striped maple trees and we cut off larger limbs so that the entire tree isn’t damaged or crippled. Because the bark slips so readily off of the branches, you just take a long piece of bark and you can literally fold it while it’s green into itself. At that time the bark is literally like a green strip, it’s very, very beautiful and a lot of the time, we will etch the effigy of a turtle or something like that on to the bark, scratch it into the bark. Then you have the opening, the aperture, and you either can put small corn kernels in or small pebbles. Then you would cut off or break off a piece of the branch and stuff the hole with it, and then eventually you would wrap a piece of leather around it. So then you end up having a really awesome rattle. I [have personally witnessed] some traditional singers and dance leaders [lead] up to 500 people in a dance with only one of these rattles for cadence, and it is readily heard throughout the area. So it’s pretty awesome, and you just literally strike it on your hand or whatever to make that sound [Nellie strikes rattle against her hand].
GP: Is there anything that you can sing for us or a poem you can recite from your tradition to go along with the rattle, or would you do it separately?
NA: This is a praise song that I’ve heard sung by people from the Choctaw nation, from the Chelogee nation, Chickasaw people, our people, I even heard a Lutheran priest at an American Indian scouting conference actually do a variation. I think it would be readily incorporated into a parish here in New York if they wanted to do something like that. The only word you’re using is “Alleluia” … if people wanted to put that into gear in their parishes, they would just sing that three times. [Nellie sings “Alleluia”]
GP: Amen! Thank you so much, Nellie, we’re going to take that back to our parishes, and hopefully next year at the UN. Thank you so much for representing the Episcopal Church at this year’s UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. And we thank Sarah Eagle Heart, our Missioner for Indigenous Ministries and all the other participants in this year’s delegation. We hope that it will be the first of many more to come. Thank you so much, Nellie, and God bless you!
The Episcopal Church thanks the Anglican Communion for making possible its presence at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as part of the Anglican Communion’s delegation.