Mildred "Gentle Rain" Moore, so named because a quiet rain was falling during her birth, is known for her Native American pottery, fashioned of clay dug from alongside the banks of the Pamunkey River. Moore, who lives on tribal lands in King William County, cites another Pamunkey woman as her role model. "We always talk about Pocahontas. She's a Pamunkey and important, of course, but I want to honor Cockacoeske," Moore says. "Without her, there would be no Pamunkey reservation."
A historical marker near the reservation tells the story: "Cockacoeske became the Queen of the Pamunkey after her husband Totopotomoy's death in 1656 fighting as an ally of the English at what became known as the Battle of Bloody Run. She signed the Treaty of Middle Plantation in 1677 in the wake of settler attacks upon friendly Indian tribes during Bacon's Rebellion in 1676. The treaty with the English subtly placed Cockacoeske as leader over certain tribes, defined the Indian tribes as tributaries to the English, and ushered in peaceful relations between the colonists and Indians of the Virginia coastal plain. She reigned until her death about 1686."
The treaty is the reason the land has remained in Pamunkey hands, and it established the annual tribal game offering, originally 20 beaver pelts, which today takes place at the Executive Mansion each year just before Thanksgiving. Moore accompanies the Pamunkey, with members of other tribes, for the event, during which they now usually offer deer, during Native American Indian Heritage Month.
"Even as a child, I looked up to this woman," Moore says, "but I also felt that pottery was my heritage. After school, we would go down to the pottery school. The women would let us make different little animals."
Moore, born in her parents' home, is one of three Pamunkey women now living there with full bloodline heritage.
"There are only about four or five men with full heritage here," she says. "Some people are coming back. It saddens me because most aren't really interested in the culture. I've taught some of them, but pottery is a long process. It can take months to make a pot the traditional way."
When Moore was a child, Indians weren't allowed to go to public schools in Virginia. Having exhausted her tribal education at 14, she traveled to Muskogee, Okla., to attend Bacone College, an Indian high school and college. At 17, she married an Englishman of German descent and moved to Pennsylvania. Widowed at 35, she moved back to Virginia to live beside her mother in 1972. To support her five children, she became a licensed practical nurse, but she turned to pottery for its calming effect.
"Have you ever had a garden?" Moore asks. "Did you ever put your hands in the dirt? It felt good, didn't it? Pottery is like that, but you never can control clay. I'd just say, ‘Well, that's it, I'm going to go where it takes me.' "
Moore's pottery has taken her to an honored place in the National Museum of the American Indian, where her creations are displayed.
I was intrigued by a friend's stories about Moore, her work and her forthrightness, which I found refreshing. Asked about today's challenges, Moore, now 77, quietly says, "A woman saved this tribe, yet our women cannot serve as council members or even vote. If we attend tribal councils, we must remain silent. What will they do about women's rights if they ever get federal recognition? This is a sovereign nation, but I'm still a U.S. citizen. I've thought about asking to be a councilwoman."
She adds, "My son says, ‘Why don't you go for chief? Maybe you'll give them something to think about.' "
©Nancy Wright Beasley 2011. All rights reserved.