By: Jennifer Jenkins
On Sept. 11, Historic St Mary’s City (HSMC) celebrated Indigenous Heritage Day. The celebration happens every year, rain or shine. This year’s event featured demonstrations related to archaeology, hide tanning, pottery, wooden canoes and flint knapping. These are traditional crafts that are represented accurately and appropriately. It is important to have both historical and Native professionals who can display Native traditions with the intent of education without trivialization or appropriation.
Mark Tayc and the Piscataway Nation Singers & Dancers presented a pow wow-style “living history” event to share Native American culture, traditions, and music. The Piscataway Nation Singers & Dancers have appeared on TV specials for Discovery Channel and the History Channel, performances at the Museum of the American Indian in DC, and at national pow-wows and major festivals. During a talk at Hudson Valley Community College, Tayc said, “The media doesn’t portray Natives as positive or accurate. People learn Native American history from cartoons like ‘Pocohontas’, old westerns and sport teams that use our people as mascots.” Audiences who interact with the Piscataway Nation Singers & Dancers get to have an authentic and educational experience.
Indigenous Heritage Day is celebrated annually at HSMC because of St Mary’s City’s history. In 1634, British colonial settlers arrived at St. Clement’s Island in hopes of establishing a settlement that practiced free religion. The settlers were given permission from the Piscataway nation to settle on the land. The Yaocomico tribe helped clear the land for the settlers. Near an old mulberry tree at Church Point, the settlers later traded European tools and cloth with the Yaocomico for the 30-acre land. After the purchase, the town was renamed St. Mary’s City and half the Yaocomico left the land immediately. The other half stayed for one more year in order to grow and harvest crops. During this time, the Yaocomico taught settlers how to cultivate staple crops, what foods to gather, and where to hunt.
While interactions between the settlers at St Mary’s City and the Yaocomico largely remained peaceful, Colonel Edmund Scarborough–an early settler of Virginia–launched a series of unprovoked attacks against the Assateague people. These attacks were called the “Seaside War of 1659” and increased tension between Natives and settlers. Treaties between the Maryland Colony and several tribes were signed in an attempt to keep the peace.
There were also some Native American reservations established during this period. Because of European influence at this time, the Yaocomico died out during the late 1600s. It is most likely that Eurasian infectious diseases killed the Yaocomico, while encroachment and competition by settlers or other Natives limited their resources.
The Yaocomico were not the only tribe that suffered. It is estimated that about 90% of indigenous people at the time perished from numerous diseases, slavery and war. On Christopher Columbus’ first day in the New World, he had six Natives seized to be used as servants. In what is now known as the Dominican Republic, Natives rebelled against Columbus and were killed as punishment. Furthermore, Columbus marched their dismembered bodies through the streets as a warning to other Natives.
Indigenous Heritage Day sheds light on the fact that indigenous culture is still alive, despite recurring setbacks since Columbus. It shows a narrative from the indigenous people that has previously been in the shadows through demonstrations, performances and education.