Piscataway Voices: Sharing Cultural Connections

An introduction to Piscataway Voices, a three-part blog series that shares the heritage and culture of Maryland’s Native people — Piscataway — and the individual perspectives of Native people, their relationship to land, stewardship, and each other.

Piscataway Park welcomes visitors all year to experience the history and present day culture of Maryland's Native people.

Piscataway Park welcomes visitors all year to experience an indigenous cultural landscape which invokes the spirit, history, and present day culture of Maryland’s Native people.

Seven years ago, when I arrived at 3400 Bryan Point Road in Accokeek for the very first time I thought, “this is a special place; this feels like home.” At the time I didn’t fully understand why I felt a connection to this place, but I do now. It IS home.

Arriving at work in Piscataway Park every day, I am reminded of my own heritage and culture, and of the significance of this land as a part of the traditional homeland of the Piscataway people — my ancestors. Through my work here, I’ve had the honor to become deeply involved in the telling of Piscataway stories. I’ve worked on a team to develop a traveling exhibit based on oral histories from several Piscataway elders, including my own grandparents! I’ve met scholars and experts in the field of archaeology and indigenous cultural landscapes. I’ve even reconnected with long lost friends and family. I’m beginning to immerse myself into the study of ethnobotany as I explore more ways to tell the stories of my cultural connection to the land.

Knowing that we all have special connections to the places where we live, work, and visit, I want to share more stories about how Native people, and more specifically Piscataway, connect with their culture and the land. To share these stories of stewardship, cultural celebrations, sharing, and reciprocity, and to honor my Native American heritage, I invited my Piscataway sisters and brother to tell you their stories. These are their stories, as told in their own voice. These are Piscataway Voices:

A Homecoming Story by Chris Newman, Piscataway Conoy
The Benefit of Piscataway People to Maryland: It’s Time for Reciprocity by Cryz Proctor, Piscataway Conoy
Honoring Full Circle by Gabrielle Tayac, Piscataway Indian Nation




Piscataway Voices: A Homecoming Story

Piscataway Voices, Part 1 of 3

written by Chris Newman; Choptico Band, Piscataway Conoy; General Manager, Sylvanaqua Farms

Chris Newman stewards the land as a Native farmer. Photo by Sylvanaqua Farms.

“Haha, no I don’t think so.”

This was the lighthearted but decidedly serious response of a good friend of mine when I suggested to his five year old son that, one day, he might be a farmer. The little boy did what all little boys (and little girls) do when they visit an old-school livestock farm: he fell in love. A warm summer sun, the sweet smell of grass, and a shade tree to lounge under while watching animals happily cluck, oink, quack, and grunt in the fields and forests… those things produce a sense of peace and satisfaction that invades your bones and infuses your soul with an elusive kind of happiness. Most people in America will toil away for a lifetime under fluorescent lights, squirreling away a nest egg in the hopes of one day, in the twilight of their years, reclaiming the inner peace of a toddler.

A recent volunteer at our farm made a very salient point. “You say you want to farm for a living, and you might as well say you want to paint oil canvasses for a living. People look at you the same way.”  Young farmers, like young artists, are widely viewed as self-indulgent millennial hipsters avoiding real work and adulthood. Their line of work is one where success is possible but highly improbable; where Picasso and Polyface are impossible economic outliers. The common logic says it’s much better to be “realistic,” which today means taking on six figures in student loan debt to enter a Thunderdome of a workforce; one where Ph.Ds claw one another’s eyes out competing for jobs paying $20 an hour. Parents like the one that visited my farm will tell their kids, “go to college, get a job.” Farming is a hobby best left for your golden years.

That attitude is a whole pile of nonsense. Stewarding the land is the future – economically, ecologically, and socially. This is particularly true for young people of color, and perhaps most of all for young Native people.

Too many writings on Native American Heritage Month are about the past: ancient traditions and historical figures and bold pronouncements about being the ‘first Americans’ and cathartic waxings on Caucasian depredation, all distilled into an anthology – equal parts depressing, enraging, and yawn-inducing – about how exciting it is that our culture isn’t quite dead yet. So let’s instead talk about the future, why young Native people should look for it in the land, and how freaking awesome that is. And while we do, let’s close our ears to our well-intended doubts, fears, prejudices, and projections, even if just for this little while.

Farming is profitable as long as you start small and in the space you already have access to. There are people grossing $80,000 a year in 1,000 square foot greenhouses selling organic microgreens. You can sell produce to practically any upscale restaurant at any time. Literally all of your neighbors would rather buy salad mixes from you than the grocery store. Have you seen the price of basil and mint? You can grow basil and mint, right now, anywhere: on your balcony, on your walls, in your basement, in your yard, on your kitchen counter, in your garage. You can grow herbs in your bathroom and, if you’ve got a bathtub nobody ever uses, you can grow daikons or carrots in it.

Despite what you may have heard, farming does not necessarily mean uprooting your life, buying a hundred acres and pieces of heavy equipment in the middle of nowhere with an ungodly amount of debt, leaving your friends and family, and praying for rain. What it more likely means is this: you start by growing as much stuff in your own home as possible, and sell it to your neighbors until it’s profitable. Then you expand to maybe your yard, or someone else’s yard, or an abandoned city lot. You sell that stuff to more neighbors and maybe a restaurant or two. You keep socking money away. Then maybe you add a few other things that do well in urban settings, like egg laying hens or bees. Sooner than you realize, you’ll find yourself making a living farming without an acre of land or a single tractor to your name.

Maybe, and ideally, you’ll get to the point where you decide to move further out, building acres of food forests and pastures to feed people, restore the land, battle climate change, and give your family and friends an idyllic place to live and work. There’s no higher calling for a Native person than to return to our lands – to the blood and bones of our ancestors – and restore them to health along with those whose faces remain above the ground. And given the enormous demand for this kind of food relative to the tiny amount of it being produced (this is what happens when most of the supply is coming from “prudent” retirees in their golden years), the economics of smallholding will be sound for decades or longer.

Young people that want to farm this way will be entering a business that involves almost no debt, can become profitable in a single year, and has an insatiable demand for a product that can never become obsolete. It’s a workplace with no commutes, no cubicles, no status meetings, no performance reviews, and no office politics. It’s a lifestyle that involves constant physical activity, time outdoors, no need for gym memberships, less need for drugs and doctors, the best food in the world, and the greatest work-life balance of any industry. For the life of me, I can’t understand why parents don’t aggressively insist their children become farmers.

Take time during this month to remember what’s come before. Remember and honor the old ones, our traditions, our values, and the events – good and bad – that have shaped who were are as a people. But ultimately, our past, present, and future are all wrapped up in the land, as they’ve always been. Today, the land and the ancestors dwelling within are calling for us. It’s time to come home.

hogs - coming home - chris newman

Pasture raised hogs at Sylvanaqua Farms near Charlottesville, Virginia.


Piscataway Voices: Honoring Full Circle

Piscataway Voices, Part 3 of 3

written by Gabrielle Tayac, Piscataway Indian Nation

Gabrielle Tayac visits ancestral burial site in Piscataway Park. Photo by Edwin Remsberg.

Gabrielle Tayac visits ancestral burial site in Piscataway Park. Photo by Edwin Remsberg, www.remsberg.com

Golden autumn light, amplified through glowing leaves, cast surprisingly unseasonal warmth upon me as I took the deliberate steps in the annual procession during the Piscataway Feast of the Dead Ceremony. Just up the road from the National Colonial Farm lies one of the most significant ancient and historical sites in the DC area that Piscataway people call Moyaone, also known as the Accokeek Creek Site in Piscataway Park.

Here we gather every November with family and dear friends, some from other tribes and many from diverse backgrounds, to honor and recall our beloved ancestors both long gone or newly departed. In this mostly unknown sacred site, we have a few hours to walk along the unseen. Feast of the Dead is a centuries old spiritual practice. It existed in a variety of forms throughout the Eastern Woodlands and persists still within a few Native American communities in the Northeast. Far to the south, with great imperial pomp and festivity, the Aztecs conducted month-long ceremonies for the departed. Their tradition merged with Catholicism after the Spanish invasion and is now known as Dia de los Muertos on November 1. Likely because the Piscataway were converted to Catholicism in 1640, we have also set the ceremonial date loosely around All Soul’s Day.

Indigenous people inhabited the perfect Potomac riverside location at Moyaone for thousands of years, relating to the rich tidal biosphere and creating a succession of cultures on the land. Centuries ago, likely around 1200 AD, things changed. A leader named Uttapoingassanem brought a new way of life to the region, constructing large towns and uniting smaller tribes into a chiefdom. When Captain John Smith mapped the region in 1608 in exploratory forays from Jamestown, he noted Moyaone as a chief’s town. And so it was – the palisaded capital of the Piscataway people until it was burned during conflicts of the Anglo-Powhatan wars.

The Piscataway never forgot their cherished capital, a place once thriving with cornfields, longhouses, and accompanied by the long line of ancestors buried throughout the landscape. The Piscataway buried their dead together in ossuaries during the Feast of the Dead ceremonies for centuries – a people collective in life, they would be a people collective in the Spirit World.

In today’s world, and indeed since the 18th century, Piscataway bury their loved ones in cemeteries much like other Marylanders. One man though, the late Chief Turkey Tayac, my grandfather, wanted to reconnect a new generation of Piscataway directly to the ancestors sleeping at Moyaone. Through an Act of Congress in 1979, one year after his death, Chief Tayac’s wish was fulfilled. He was buried in the ossuary of the old ones, under a red cedar that we now call the Tree of Life that would be a channel from the ancestral remains to the living to the Creator.

It is to this very place, the Tree of Life at Moyaone, that we make a ceremonial march to every year. Accompanied by song and drumbeat, holding small bundles that represent every deceased person that we want to remember that year, we walk a path of prayer and reconciliation. We stop four times at different points, one for each direction, reflective but not sad, along with our children and elders. And every year as I get well into middle-age, I realize that there are more friends and family in whose footsteps I tread, but that they are not with me in life anymore. They are in the bundles, held to my heart as we walk further to the tree.

The cedar tree represents the Tree of Life, where annually Piscataway tribal members convene for a Feast of the Dead celebration in remembrance of the loved ones lost. Photo by Edwin Remsberg, www.remsberg.com.

The cedar tree represents the Tree of Life, where annually Piscataway tribal members convene for a Feast of the Dead celebration in remembrance of the loved ones lost. Photo by Edwin Remsberg, www.remsberg.com.

When the procession arrives at the Tree of Life, we form a half circle on the east side. For the second half of the circle, the one to the west, the one that extends into the Potomac River, is reserved for the spirits. Together we make one circle: Native people, people of all faiths and ethnicities who we are connected to in the past and present. We are unified.

One by one or in family groups, we speak the names of those passed on, tell jokes and stories about them, speak to them a little while. Maybe there are apologies owed. Maybe there was somebody we had to say, “I love you” to one more time. Then we tie the bundles on to the tree so that when the wind blows it carries the message to the Spirit World through our loved ones.

After everyone has tied their bundles, we balance out reflection with feasting. Hosted in the cheerful Education building at the Accokeek Foundation there is much visiting, banter, and yes, always gossip. For a while, we as Piscataway people are back in our ancient home, with our ancestors and with the living. That is how we come full circle.

The Benefit of Piscataway People to Maryland: It’s Time for Reciprocity

Piscataway Voices; Part 2 of 3

written by Cryz Nkechehosi Proctor; Wild Turkey Clan, Cedarville Band of the Piscatawy Conoy

Wild Turkey Clan mother, Gladys Procter and her family pose with Governor O'Malley during the 2012 Piscataway recognition.

Wild Turkey Clan mother, Gladys Procter and her family pose with Governor Martin O’Malley during the 2012 Piscataway recognition.

Growing up as an active member of the Wild Turkey Clan, Cedarville Band of the Piscataway Conoy, I have witnessed and participated in decades of petitioning the state of Maryland to be validated in saying we are who we have always known ourselves to be; the descendants of the Piscataway. Piscataway, in existence by some archaeological estimates for 24,000 years, is the largest Native Nation and head of the 2nd largest confederacy of the Chesapeake region. Within these years I internalized the dedication of our Elders in their efforts to right the wrongs for our people. After many attempts, in 2012 we finally received the state recognition to claim who we have been – long before the English traveled up the Potomac to discover us. Thus, 2012 ushered in a new wave of opportunities as well as exploitation of my people.

As a young child, I watched and was coached in a resurgence of our culture and philosophies. Tight-knit families (bonded together by ancestral exclusivity and historic traumas) created councils, built a museum and cultural center and filled these spaces with programming to build our community up. These efforts were Piscataway community-funded and maintained. Then, I watched helplessly, as a beautiful, strong and knowledgeable people succumbed to internal and public struggle, emotional turmoil and collusion. It would have been a blessing, a relief, a revitalization and proper for us to have received the support of local nonprofits, culture, education and preservation organizations, and government officials who benefited from our history and lives. Many organizations still today benefit from the name, struggles, bones, artifacts, lands, waters and stories of our ancestors. Many want to benefit from the mystique of an ancient people while failing to create reciprocal relationships with those descendants who are still living and rightfully representing Eastern Woodland Native communities. As the inherited 5th generation clan mother, two-spirit healer, and co-chair of the Cedarville Band of the Piscataway, Inc., my life’s work has been and will remain to see my ancestors raised back to their rightful place, to be an advocate for Earth Mother and to be a culture bearer. Mostly, I want to leave a legacy (with actual benefits) that the next generations can prosper from. We are still here and we will continue to share our own stories to rebuild what was lost. To reclaim what we have allowed to be exploited will not be an easy task but it is one that I am willing to spend my lifetime to change.

I am the Executive Producer of a Piscataway designed and facilitated mobile program: Living the American Indian Experience (LAIE). Via several public program models under the LAIE umbrella, we reach young children, students, professionals and the general public as well as partner with existing museums, parks, education systems, governmental agencies and nonprofits to share our culture and history. We do this with emphasis on culturally appropriate and historically accurate ways which employ and benefit tribal members while helping to eradicate long-withstanding stereotypes about Native peoples. In our first season of operation this year, we have reached over 10,000 people and are repairing long-strained relationships. If you are interested in reserving our services or partnering with us in a reciprocal and mutually respectful way, please inquire via our website at: www.piscatawayindians.com.

Monthly Foodways: All My Dreams Are of Indian Corn

Saturday, July 16–“All My Dreams Are of Indian Corn” Nothing was more important to the colonial diet than corn. Join us as we take you through the many uses of this remarkable plant and the labor that went into its cultivation. This month’s menu will include Baked Indian Meal Pudding, Johnny Cakes, and Native Succotash.

“Where’s The Beef?” Foodways Found it This Month

Our friends from the Zia Pueblo

It was a fairly warm Saturday on the National Colonial Farm but under the shade of a poplar tree the Accokeek Foundation held its monthly Foodways event. Our friends Peter and Stella Pino from the Zia Pueblo in New Mexico, along with our own Matt Mattingly, demonstrated to guests delicious ways to prepare venison, rabbit and muskrat. A long table situated close to the hearth was packed with various dishes, utensils and ingredients necessary for a colonial inspired feast. Guests chatted quietly while awaiting the signal to dig into what was being prepared over the open fire before them. Finally, Matt presented his traditionally prepared  muskrat partnered with a simple, sweet herb infused English gravy and the guests swarmed the table to get a taste.

While our friend Glenn Burlack from the National Museum of the American Indian manned the fire, Peter perfected the art of rabbit stew, which had just the right amount of spice especially when paired with the delicious tortillas that Stella was hand making (she even took a special request and made some fry bread).  Also boiling over the fire was a venison and summer squash dish that was delightful on this particularly warm spring day. Added to the table of ingredient was a large bowl of greens with a dressing quickly prepared by Stella. The crisp lettuce was the perfect combination with the warm meat dishes.

Once all of the stomachs were full and only the smell of fresh herbs and cooling coals were left in the air, the crowd of guests started to disperse and all that was heard was the sound of quiet discussions in anticipation for the next Foodways event.  Join us for the next colonial inspired meal on June 18th – only at the National Colonial Farm.