Powhatan tribe head to Kent for a very modern powwow

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Keith Smith was perspiring and breathing hard under his feathered head-dress. In the unlikely surroundings of a topiary garden at a stately home in Kent, to a small audience of civic dignitaries, he had just performed the grand entrance dance of the Powhatan peoples - the prelude to their celebrated powwow.

It was proving a bitter-sweet occasion for Mr Smith and his fellow chiefs, the first official delegation of Virginian Indians to arrive on these shores for three centuries. They are here as the guests of the Jamestown 2007 British Committee, an organisation set up to mark the 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown, the first English-speaking colony in North America.

The first ships carrying colonists set off from Gravesend and the tribe's most famous daughter, Pocahontas, is buried in a riverside church in the town.

But while the sons of Kent went on to found the United States of America, the arrival of the English was to prove catastrophic for the indigenous peoples who had inhabited Tsenacomoco, their name for the forests that flanked the James river, where they lived. By the time the two sides had got round to signing a peace treaty, war, disease and hunger had reduced the native population by 65 per cent and consigned them to the physical and social margins of the New World being built around them.

The eight tribes themselves, and their 7,000 members, only received official recognition 25 years ago and the legality of the agreement which granted them their two reservations in Virginia is still disputed with the US government.

But there appeared to be little in the way of hard feelings. Mr Smith, a computer expert who worked on the human genome project, prefers to reserve his disdain for the American government. "I'm just really glad that the English people are recognising us for who we are when our own country doesn't," he said.

Warren Cook, assistant chief of the Pamunkey, is also philosophical about the past but determined that the future will not see his tribe forced to cede what is rightfully theirs, particularly over fishing rights. "With all that land someone was going to come out there sooner or later," he says.

Stephen Adkins, a retired human resources director with Du Pont, leads the Chickahominy. "When I look back, the positive thing that accrued is that our folks learnt some new technology that the English brought with them. But the colonists were never satisfied - enough was never enough. And that was the story of America from the east coast to the west."

Today Native Americans own just 2 per cent of the US landmass and many experience profound social problems. Across the Canadian border, the Innu, also part of the Algonquian-speaking Powhatan, work with groups such as Survival International to combat rampant alcoholism, depression and petrol-sniffing among the young.

But Chief Adkins says it is wrong to believe that all are blighted by social ills. "We are a microcosm of society - we have everyone from janitors to doctors and lawyers. If you look at the number of people in the tribes of Virginia who need public assistance, it is statistically negligible. At some point though the United States will wake up to its indigenous people."

But there is little appetite for heaping the blame on the English. "Look at it this way, on 4 July 1776 when they took down the Union Jack and raised up Old Glory, did our lives change for the better? The answer is they did not."