"The early Maryland experience
was so much more promising than anywhere else on the Eastern Seaboard.
Lord Baltimore's people, who came to Maryland, had the enormous advantage
over the first people at Jamestown of understanding that a settlement
meant hard work and that you got success a lot more quickly if you were
allied with Native Peoples, instead of treating them as pagan enemies."
Martin Sullivan, Executive Director of Historic St. Mary's City, speaks
directly of the productive relationship between the English settlers and
the Yaocomaco Indians of the Woodland period. Photographer Marie Lynch and
I are visiting with Dr. Sullivan in the lush gardens in an expansive 17th
Century replica setting of the English settlement at the site of
Maryland's first capital. We are here to learn about the significant
contributions of the First Peoples to this region, who were living here
thousands of years before the English arrived. Martin Sullivan identifies
the two major groups of the Western Shore region: the Yaocomaco who
inhabited what is now St. Mary's County for hundreds of years and the
powerful tribes of the Piscataway Chiefdom who settled mainly to the north
in Indian Head in Charles County and the Potomac River area that carved
out the District of Columbia.
In the early 1600s, when the English arrived, there were about 1500 Native
Peoples in settled villages on the Western Shore and roughly an equal
number in villages on the Eastern Shore. . . and all of the communities
gathered in Maryland were Algonkian speaking," Martin Sullivan continues.
He points out the Three Sisters Garden of corn, beans, and squash,
vegetables that grow well together, that the Native women would have
planted. We learn that the Yaocomaco willingly shared their masterful
techniques of farming, hunting and fishing, stone tool making, herbal
medicines, hide tanning, pottery and the use of indigenous plants for
cordage or string making. "All of those were skills and knowledge that
were readily shared with the early settlers. It was a great gift," Martin
It is dusk; the summer heat is dissolving and a cooling breeze from St.
Mary's River sweeps over us as we cross a wooden bridge to reach the
Woodland Indian Hamlet that is set in a clearing on an elevated knoll. A
Yaocomaco longhouse or Witchott, that could house ten or twelve people,
looms in the center. With its rounded sapling frame covered with mats
woven of marsh grasses and its roof opening to allow meats hanging in the
rafters to be smoked, it is a stalwart symbol of the resourcefulness of
the Native Peoples. Framing in the reconstructed Hamlet are a smaller
Witchott, an open work shelter with sapling poles and matted roof, and a
dugout canoe, created by the traditional method of burning out a tree log.
We sit on worn-smooth, trunk stools and as the evening gathers around us,
a sacredness prevails, as if the spirits of the Native Peoples are
present. Martin Sullivan speaks passionately now about a subject that has
stretched his heart, and he is well appointed to do so. For eight years he
served on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
Review Committee, created by Congress to monitor national repatriation
efforts and to mediate disputes involving tribes, universities, and
museums. He is avid about underscoring the legacy of the "First Nations"
to this area, a formulation he prefers to use since it signifies, "a clear
affirmation of their sovereignty." Gesturing at the waterscape beyond the
knoll, he proclaims, "Look around the Bay at all the ways in which this
landscape and this watershed were shaped lovingly over centuries by people
who are no longer with us but who had a kinship with the land and water.
The relics that remind us of their presence are the occasional arrowhead
that comes out of the ground, and perhaps in an archeological site, you
see fragments of weapons made of bone and stone. . . . Bringing the Bay
back into harmony with itself would be wise ecologically and it would be a
way for us to give tribute in our time to the peoples who were stewards of
it long before we were here. . . . I think we can look to the Native
Peoples of the Chesapeake Bay for lessons in resilience."
Martin Sullivan understands the Native Peoples' resolution. With a Ph.D.
in American History, he has been schooled in their years of degradation
from forced relocations, their tragic deaths from the white man's
diseases, the humiliating influence of the Indian Boarding Schools and the
desecration of their sacred sites. Yet, it was his face-to-face encounter
with the Chiefs of the Iroquois Confederacy, when he was Director of the
New York State Museum, that transformed his thinking. "They showed up on
my doorstep to remind me of my responsibilities to protect their sacred
artifacts," Martin says, his eyes shining in the shadowy light. "Relating
to them, going out to the Onondaga Nation and sitting in their longhouses
with their Chiefs and Clan Mothers changed my life." It is a moment
in the twilight that gathers everything into it, and we can tell this man
means what he says. "A hundred years ago most Americans, including Teddy
Roosevelt, who was then president, were convinced that the Indian way of
life was vanishing. . . . It is just remarkable that one hundred years
later, not only are tribal communities still existing but they are, in
many cases, stronger and with much more pride and there are communities
that are investing heavily in language retention programs. And the return
of the sacred objects from museum collections has made it possible to
restore some of the old ceremonies that were in danger of being lost."
When I ask to what does he attribute such resilience, Martin refers to
the tradition of the warrior: "Think of over 500 years of contact with
Europeans and all of the things taken away and all of the diseases that
came. But, in fact, there is that sense of identity and stewardship. Most
Native communities feel a very deep sense of obligation to the land of the
region and to the whole country. I have been to a lot of tribal museums
around the US, and it is so interesting to go into them. Very likely, the
first thing you see is the Honor Roll of Veterans. That tells you, that
despite all that oppression and hurt, there is still that sense of
obligation to protect your country."
Inspired by such enlightenment, we are encouraged by Martin Sullivan to
head north to Piscataway territory to speak with Gabrielle Tayac, the
niece of Chief Billy "Redwing" Tayac, and granddaughter of the legendary
"Turkey" Tayac, the indefatigable leader, who kept the tribal spark alive
when only a remnant of the Piscataway remained.
We meet with Dr. Tayac at the Cultural Resources Center of the
Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in Suitland,
Maryland, where she serves as program specialist. It is an impressive
campus with a luminous reflection in the architecture and landscaping of
the Native connection to the environment. Gabrielle Tayac laughs as she
greets us, "Who would have imagined anything like this 15 years ago for an
Indian?" Ushering us into a conference room, she is eager to speak
of the contributions of her people to this area, but it is a complex
issue. "Our people have been and still are extremely generous and
hospitable people. . . . From a Native perspective, if you invite somebody
into your home, your home isn't just your house. It is all of your
environment and the land around you, the seen world and the unseen world.
. . . It doesn't mean you are going to leave, it means you are willing to
share. . . . But from an English point of view, when you go on land and
occupy it, it becomes yours. . . . And this was not within the scope of
understanding of our people at all."
Her eyes do not blink but deepen with sorrow as she speaks of the
encroachment of their lands because the Native Peoples did not fence in
their properties, and the series of reservations, called Indian Manors,
that were established in Maryland but were subsequently overrun. From the
relentless aggression, the ubiquitous cry of her people rang out: "Please
leave us in peace. Leave us to be as we are."
Within the painful history of her people, Gabrielle Tayac identifies a
remarkable truth: "In that situation, you encountered a people whose
notion of freedom is beyond that which had been in Europe at that time. .
. ." Never had been seen this level of freedom by the settlers, a freedom
that illustrated the bonds of the old feudal system could be broken. It
planted a seed in the colonists and eventually had a profound impact on
the writing of the US Constitution. "This is what makes Americans
fundamentally different than many other people in the world. . . . But
while our freedom leached out to the people who came here, our freedoms
were greatly eroded."
"It came at a great cost to make this contribution," I respond.
Again Gabrielle Tayac turns the tragedy of her people into a benevolence,
as she speaks of freedom making a circle back so that as ways for her
people to recover are opening, so too are opening up "civil liberties" and
the "rights of people to be."
My last question, though global in scope, does not deter this modern
Native woman with a doctorate from Harvard. I ask if she will illustrate
how the Native Peoples' connection to the land, their stewardship of the
earth and reverence for life are providential and restorative for all of
us at such an epochal time in our history when our environment, our earth
home, is so fragile. There is no hesitation in her response: "At our
sacred site at Moyaone, Accokeek, where my grandfather, Turkey Tayac, was
buried by an Act of Congress and where our peoples lived for thousands of
years, my uncle told me once that so many generations of our people are
buried here that our bones are ground into the earth. We are so
intermingled with the earth, every time we pick up the dirt, we pick up a
life. We understand this is a sacred, living earth, . . . what we take
from it, we have to give back. I think our people made a choice to have
that intimate, profound interconnectedness with this planet. . . . It is a
cultural value. . . . That is what our people did. Our spirituality is
based on thousands of years of deep observation and understanding of
relatedness. And, with our oral traditions, when you have a die out to the
extent we did, you realize how horrible that was." Gabrielle Tayac pauses
now, and from the largeness of her story, the silence in the room is
overwhelming. "But, we are still here," she speaks finally, from a well of
resolve as deep as the travail of her people is long. Our sacred charge
drives us: our original instructions are to care for the earth and our
sacred burial grounds."
In the quiet, Martin Sullivan's parting statement comes to mind: "Native
Americans are still here because of their strong communal identity that we
were people who were put here to care for this place, and we can't go
As we conclude our interview, Gabrielle assures us that, "A tremendous
Native American renaissance is occurring," that it is no longer grass
roots but is global and is not only reaching out to all Native Peoples but
to all who believe in social justice and environmental preservation. . . .
"We are all part of the story now," she affirms. As co-founder of
the League of Indigenous Sovereign Nations and the granddaughter of Turkey
Tayac, the "Flickering Flame," who was dedicated to keeping the Piscataway
traditions alive, it is not happenstance that she is instrumental in the
opening next year of the National Museum of the American Indian in
Washington, D. C.
Later in the week, I spot an eagle that has landed on a small stretch of
Western Shore beach that is being preserved by our neighbors for their
grandchildren. And I remember the words of Gabrielle Tayac: "The eagles,
beavers, wild turkeys, when we see those animals and the land coming back,
we feel that is us."