Piscataway Voices, Part 3 of 3
written by Gabrielle Tayac, Piscataway Indian Nation
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.
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.