Mount Trashmore, once a mountain of actual trash, is now a 70-foot-tall, 60-acre mound covering an approximate 640,000 tons of garbage and the site of the 11th Annual American Indian Pow Wow in Virginia Beach.

Once a Trash Heap, Now Pow Wow Central

Vincent Schilling

It used to be a mountain of debris. Now the 70-foot-tall, 60-acre “Mount Trashmore,” covering 640,000 tons of garbage, is the site of an annual pow wow—one of Virginia Beach’s biggest parties.

Back in the 1960s, local officials were wrinkling their noses and racking their brains on what to do with the stinking, 50-acre landfill in the middle of Virginia Beach. Then lightning struck: Roland Dorer, a town health department employee, envisioned turning the trash heap into a mountain for the Department of Parks and Recreation. City officials agreed, and Mount Trashmore Park was born, thanks to a grant of $192,674 and matching funds from the Solid Waste Disposal Act.

According to the Virginia Beach Department of Parks and Recreation, Mount Trashmore Park covers 165 acres with two man-made mountains, two lakes, two playgrounds, a skate park and vert ramp, and multi-use paths. Mount Trashmore itself was created by compacting layers of solid waste and clean soil.

Today, almost four decades after its completion, Virginia Beach residents and tribal members are gearing up for the 11th Annual Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation American Indian Powwow, to be held at the park on April 23rd. Organizers are expecting more than 10,000 attendees this year. The park itself, one of the top 25 most visited parks in America, sees more than 1 million visitors annually.

“Last year we had the Pow wow in conjunction with Earth Day. This year it is going to be a stand-alone event—just the American Indian powwow,” said Debbie Vick, Recreation Specialist I for the Department of Parks and Recreation, and the event’s organizer. “It was almost like a miniature Fourth of July here last year—our attendance was a little over 10,000. This year I am hoping to see more.”

Vick, whose office sits at the base of Mt. Trashmore, said the American Indian Pow wow “is one of the most unique events that the Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation event does in connection with our land” and added that putting it together has enhanced her appreciation of American Indian culture.

“I have learned respect. I have learned respect for the families of Native people, respect for their values, their culture, and how to respect them as individuals,” she said. “The native community is a very tight-knit family.”

Dawn Redwood, Appalachian Nation Cherokee and a woman’s traditional dancer and vendor at the pow wow, cares more about how to use the land now than what it used to be. She is happy that Mount Trashmore’s popularity of Mount Trashmore is helping promote awareness of Native people.

“This is the earth. Unfortunately there is trash everywhere,” said Redwood, a Virginia Beach resident, who plans to attend. “I do like that there's more exposure to the Virginia Beach public so that they can see us. It is nice to be able to show people that we are real, we're here and we’re not just performers, this is our culture.”

Sylvia Nery-Strickland, Cherokee/Cheroenhaka Nottoway, has been a resident of Virginia Beach since 1968 and witnessed the transition of Mount Trashmore from dump to park. She will take part in the pow wow as a singer and dancer for Four Rivers Drum Group. It’s an epic improvement, she said, pointing out that in those days, long before recycling was popular or easy, it was hard to picture anything but trash multiplying endlessly.

“I watched the pile of trash get higher and higher, and along with so many others could not envision the huge mountain of garbage ever become anything more than what we saw in front of us. I think there were some unforeseen problems, but the City corrected them as we watched in amazement it transformed before our eyes,” she said. “As a Native American interested in the environment, I feel we can truly celebrate the beauty of this park and thank the City of Virginia Beach for turning a mountain of trash into a place of beauty where so many have enjoyed over the years. As I dance in the powwow, I will be giving thanks that there are so many others who are caring for our land and doing so in such inventive ways.”

More than a Native celebration on a former trash pile, it represents to Vick a triumph over the things that would drag us down. “This is a celebration of life for all people,” she said.

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