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We Are Still Here

Oct 25, 2011 05:35PM ● By Anonymous
All bowed their heads and prayed as the bundled remains of 23 Native Americans, who had walked this land many centuries ago, were carefully lowered into the earth. The solemn ceremony marked a new understanding between the state and the six Maryland Native American tribes whose voices were finally heard. These are their chiefs’ stories.

Paul Two Feathers Browne
Spokesman for the Pocomoke Indian Tribe
There was a time when a squirrel could go from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River and never touch the ground.


Paul Two Feathers Browne

“It’s very difficult for us to trace our lineage, since we had an oral tradition,” says Paul Two Feathers Browne of the Pocomoke Tribe near Crisfield, Maryland. “In my case, I found my family name in a church record book.

“Years ago, our tribes spoke the same Algonquin language and had the same culture, but after the English came, we claimed we were white so our kids wouldn’t be placed in Black or Indian Schools. Some of our children were taken off to Indian boarding schools. My wife’s aunt covered herself with makeup in the summertime to try and pass as white. They ripped our culture.” He pauses, “But we can’t carry the past. We need to continue on from here.” Although his people have petitioned for state recognition, Browne, a retired navy engineer, isn’t concerned about it being granted. “We’re still here,” he says. “And our ancestors’ remains are hidden in our marshes.”

The Pocomokes count 52 registered members, with only 20 left in the area. “Our biggest challenge now is to keep our younger members. If we lose two, that’s a big loss for us. We want to keep them interested in our traditions.”

In November, during their Feast for the Dead, the three Pocomoke clans will say prayers to honor and remember their recently deceased clan mother, Joyce Morning Star Browne.

Chief Sewall Winterhawk Fitzhugh
Nause Waiwash Tribe
I wish I had more time to touch the earth
Young Nause Waiwash tribe member, Jackson Browhan.

Chief Winterhawk of Dorchester County has spent most of his 57 years trying to maintain his heritage.“I was worried our way of life would soon be gone, so I started recording my people’s stories when I was 17,” he says. “I can go back 13 generations.

“We’re descendants of the people of the Nanticoke Confederacy, who lived on both sides of the Nanticoke and Choptank rivers. Our villages stretched from Maryland to Delaware Bay and my family greeted Captain John Smith when he sailed the Nanticoke in 1608.”

By the late 17th century, his ancestors had been pushed onto three reservations, one near Cambridge (Waiwash), one near Vienna, Maryland (Chicone), and one near Laurel, Delaware (Broad Creek). Soon the people began to dwindle away. Many died of smallpox—others assimilated into other tribes or married other races—some moved north. By the late 1700s, they had relinquished their two Maryland reservations.

What’s left today is his band of 250 people known as the Nause Waiwash, who are intent on preserving their Native American traditions.

“We celebrate five feast days, as do most other Maryland tribes,” he says. “We begin the Indian year with the winter solstice, Soya, when the cycle of life begins. The Great Mother is with child again. We feast and dance during our Mid-Winter celebration. In spring we celebrate the Rebirth Planting Festival. In late summer harvest, we celebrate the Green Corn Festival. Then in November, we celebrate the Feast of the Dead.

“We believe in the cycle of life,” he says. “Everything we do is part of the great circle, which has no beginning or end. When a person dies, we see him as being bundled in a blanket that time has worn out. If he respected his parents, he returns to the Eastern door. His old blanket falls away as he continues on his journey.”

Chief Winterhawk talks about the 139 native remains, dating back to 1200–1400 AD, which after being discovered, were placed in the state’s possession, then stored in a secured room in a state storage facility. He explains the conflict this has caused between the state and the Maryland tribes that revere their ancestors and their remains.

“Their journeys have been interrupted and we want them returned to the earth,” he says. He’s part of a 10-person working group designated by the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs and the Maryland Historical Trust to debate this long-standing problem.

One of the reasons for this conflict has been the state’s reluctance to officially recognize any of the tribes as being distinctly Native American because of the lack of written documentation to prove their authenticity. The Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, however, does unofficially recognize the six tribes. Both sides now agree that in spite of the lack of official recognition, the goal is to return the Native American ancestral remains to the earth.

“Thanks to Governor O’Malley’s help,” says Chief Winterhawk, “we’re close to returning them to their home areas.” The recent spring ceremony was a beginning. The ancestors’ souls can now continue their journey.

Chief William Red Wing Tayac
Piscataway Indian Nation
We’re Only Stewards of the Land

“When Leonard Calvert and his group from The Ark and The Dove ships came up the Potomac to St. Clements Island in 1634, my people welcomed them,” says Chief William Red Wing Tayac of the Piscataway Indian Nation, located in Southern Maryland. “They became our buffer against the warring Susquehannocks.

“At first we enjoyed a friendly time with them, but they wanted to own land. They didn’t understand it’s not a commodity. We’re only stewards of the land and we have an obligation to take care of it. They brought their religion here and tried to convert us. But we practiced a natural religion and couldn’t understand theirs.”

Chief Tayac has been the hereditary chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation ever since his father Chief Turkey Tayac died in 1978. “I come from an unbroken line of chiefs,” he says. His father’s remains are interred at Moyoane, the tribe’s capital city, located across from Mt. Vernon.

“We bury our ancestors at this sacred place. It’s where we celebrate our Feast of the Dead and pay respect to the spirit world. When you pick up a handful of earth here, you pick up two or three people’s lives.”

Chief Tayac’s 103-member tribe is one of three Piscataway groups in Maryland. Although the two other groups have petitioned for state recognition, Chief Tayac’s response is “Only God can make an Indian.”

Chief Rudy Laughing Otter Hall
Accohannock Indian Tribe
We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children

Kaziah, as she is know among her tribe members, represents the Accohannock Indian Tribe.


Eighty-year-old Chief Rudy Laughing Otter Hall sits in his office in Somerset County, where he conducts his tribe’s business. He was selected chief in 1998 by the 15-member council of Clan Mothers, the tribe’s traditional, matriarchal governing body.

At their meetings, the Senior Turtle Clan Mother relays problems and suggestions from the 50 local tribe members, which the tribal council then resolves.

“Our tribe migrated north from Virginia in the 1600s,” says Chief Hall. “When Maryland later put a bounty on our heads, we went into hiding. Our communal life was disrupted, and we couldn’t speak our language. Many of our daughters married white colonists. For about 300 years we didn’t even have a chief.”

His tribe owns the 32-acre Bending Water Park in Marion, Maryland, which is the site of the annual October Pow-Wow, held along with 10 other Delmarva tribes.

“We want people to realize the heritage we have,” he says. “So many place names and rivers in Maryland are Indian names, yet we’re not recognized by either the state or federal governments.” Although his tribe has petitioned for state recognition, the chief says, “I know who I am.”

Chief Joseph Crow Neale
Youghiogheny River Band of Shawnee Indians
I want to work with the earth

Joseph Crow Neale, a 49-year old Shawnee chief in Friendsville, Maryland, has led his 200-member Shawnee tribe, for 13 years. Originally from Ohio, they’ve been scattered throughout Western Maryland for 30 years, yet they return to Friendsville to celebrate their ancient ceremonies.

Chief Crow lives on top of a mountain in the tribal council house—a 30-foot round building with no insulation, plumbing, or electricity.

A wood stove stands on the room’s dirt floor. “I want to be as close to the natural world as possible, to be in touch with our ancestors and their old ways and skills,” he says. “It’s really hard to live like this, but it’s also amazing especially when I stand outside and look at the sky.”

Daniel Firehawk Abbott
I try to find my sacred ground

Daniel Firehawk Abbott stands in front of a rapt crowd as he spins his wooden hand drill against a fireboard to create a smoldering powder. He places a bundle of plant fibers next to the coal and the spark bursts into flame. Surrounded by stone tools and pottery, he’s dressed in coastal Algonquin furs and hides.

He’s a Native American; part English, part Nanticoke, and part Choptank. He travels throughout the area demonstrating the traditional Native American way of life to his many audiences. “Being an Indian is a frame of mind,” he says.

Anne McNulty is an Eastern Shore-based freelance writer who greatly enjoyed interviewing each of the subjects in this piece, learning much more than their stories, but also the stories of the land in which she lives.

About the Photography
The tintype photography throughout this article was taken by Anne Nielsen, who, along with oral historian Marc Dykeman, created the project, Catching Shadows: Tintype Portraits and Recorded Voices of 21st Century Native Americans living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

A wooden reproduction camera and a large brass Voigtlander lens made in the year 1864 were used for these portraits. The photographic process is known as Wet-Plate and is carried out exactly as first described by Frederick Scott Archer in the year 1851. The project became a traveling exhibit that opened in April 2010 at the Queen Anne’s County Arts Council.