Native American Tribes in the DMV

In honor of Native American Heritage Month, it is important to acknowledge and discuss the vibrant and diverse culture, history, tribes, and traditions of our fellow American Indians. A couple of years back I lived in Bryans Road, Maryland, and would often pass streets, signs, and even parks that read “Piscataway.” Being a bit young and naïve, I thought it was a funny name, but I came to discover its true meaning and began to unearth the deep ties that the tribe has to the community. 

Piscataway Conoy Tribe 

Firstly, the name Piscataway Conoy is a translation from the original word Kinwaw Paskestikweya, meaning the people in long river with a bend in it, also known as the Potomac river. The tribe was first approached by Europeans in 1608, specifically by Captain John Smith and William Claiborne. The year 1634 marked the arrival of the Ark and Dove, which carried Leonard Calvert, who began colonizing the tribe’s homeland, and a Jesuit priest, Father Andrew White, who began to convert the tribe to Catholicism. Infiltration upon the tribe’s village in the 1660s gave rise to conflict; in response a treaty was drafted which called for the establishment of a reservation.

Because of this treaty, Piscataway Manor was created in 1669, resulting in the creation of several more reservations and treaties over time. Nevertheless, all of the treaties were eventually broken due to future infiltration from settlers, leading to the tribe losing their homeland. To escape the infiltration, members of the tribe chose to migrate to Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania also became the place where the Piscataway people became known as the Conoy.

 It is important to note that not all the Piscataway people decided to migrate. Some decided to stay and establish their own communities in Charles County, Calvert County, and Prince Georges’ County. It is also important to note that the Piscataway tribe is known for their farming, hunting, and fishing tact, which they used to earn money to begin gradually buying back their land. Today, the tribe continues to fight for their sovereignty, share their unique culture through their cultural and resource center in Waldorf, Maryland, and protect their traditions. 

The Pamunkey Tribe 

The Pamunkey tribe fought tirelessly against the efforts of colonists and is one of the eleven Virginian Native American tribes  – being one of the first federally acknowledged in January 2016. The tribe is highly recognized for this and also for the historical contributions made by the tribe throughout history, including but limited to their fight for legal privileges and peace treaties. Similar to the Piscataway tribe, the Pamunkey tribe had ties to the English early settlement, also being visited by Captain John Smith in 1607. The tribe also survived off of the resources of their land by farming, trading, and hunting throughout “central and eastern Virginia for more than 10,000 years.”  

As time went on, after years of fighting against colonists, the tribe began to focus on continuing to preserve its traditions and way of life despite the injustices they encountered and the backlash they faced because of it. With this, many tribe members chose to migrate but many later returned and chose to stay and make a life within in the Commonwealth of Virginia. 

Due to their continued hard work to gain recognition, in 2015, the Pamunkey tribe acquired a breakthrough, and the United States government granted the tribe federal recognition, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This allows the tribe to have access to federal grants and programs to increase access to healthcare, educational opportunities, better housing, and improved infrastructure. This also allows the tribe to pursue economic development opportunities that will ensure the long-term viability of the tribe and a means for them to give back to fellow Virginians

The Nacotchtank Tribe 

The Nacotchtank Tribe originally occupied the land we now call the National Mall, although some claim that the tribe may have originated near the Anacostia River. In 1608 Captain John Smith is said to note that the town had 80 fighting men. The Nacotchtank village, whose owners were known for fur trading, was considered the trading center for European fur traders and other tribes. The tribe’s main food source was through the river, now Anacostia, and they lived in longhouses, or wigwams. One sector of the village grew corn, beans, and squash, and had plenty of access to wildlife and water. 

The tribe also had its fair share of war and attempts at colonization by Europeans, being essentially set up by an enemy tribe who captured an Englishman by the name of Henry Fleet. Fleet remained with the enemy tribe for 5 years and was later used by the tribe to make an agreement with settlers to help them acquire corn from an enemy tribe, the Nacotchtank. It was reported that white and red raiders attacked the Nacotchtanks, leaving 18 Nacotchtank tribe members dead. The rest of the tribe was driven from their cabins, which were then plundered and burned

Unfortunately, unlike the Pamunkey and Piscataway tribes, few members of the Nacotchtank tribe survived colonization. The few surviving members are reported to have branched off into other more well-known tribes like the Piscataway. 

In conclusion, many of these tribes’ names may now sound a bit more familiar and become more recognizable for you as you drive, bike, walk, or take the train through our nation’s capitol and the surrounding Maryland and Virginia areas. As you rush to work or school, the importance of knowing your history and others may escape you, but it is always important to circle back and realize this land’s true origins. Visiting places like the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, the Jamestown Settlement in Jamestown, Virginia, or the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians in Waldorf, Maryland may help you on your journey of discovery. So, explore, and remember to never stop educating yourself about true history.

Works Cited

Band, C. (2022). About the Cedarville Band of piscataway conoy tribal nation. Piscataway Indians . Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://www.piscatawayindians.com/about 

Hedgpeth, D. (2018, November 22). A Native American tribe once called D.C. home. it’s had no living members for centuries. The Washington Post. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2018/11/22/native-american-tribe-once-called-dc-home-its-had-no-living-members-centuries/ 

History , M. (2020). Histories of the National Mall: Nacotchtanks. Mall History . Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://mallhistory.org/items/show/123 

Indian Tribe , P. (2021). About the Tribe . Pamunkey Indian Tribe | Pamunkey Indian Tribe. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://pamunkey.org/ 

Tribe , P. (2020). Culture. Piscataway Conoy tribe – history. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from http://www.piscatawayconoytribe.com/history.html 

Tribe , P. (2020). The Road Traveled . Pamunkey Tribe. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from https://www.pamunkeyfuture.com/ 

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