Chesapeake Bay could become a national recreation area
Native Americans in the Maryland-Virginia Bay divide hope the proposal will improve their history as well. Their narrative stretches back at least 12,000 years, shaped by endurance, adaptation, and survival, along with an overarching belief in the sacredness of the natural world. For many indigenous peoples, the bay and its tributaries provided a source of life worthy of national recognition.
“I think it would be amazing and it should definitely happen,” said Anne Richardson, chief of the Rappahannock tribe, whose members number about 300 and whose tribal service area spans four counties in Virginia. The bay “played a food role for us. … Our religious practices were mainly on the water and our ceremonies were all tied to the water because water is life for all and was worshiped by the people. Therefore, it is considered by humans as a spiritual being.”
The Chesapeake Bay — named for a tribe around what is now the Hampton Roads area of Virginia that was wiped out by intertribal rivalry on the eve of European contact — provided the first permanent foothold for English colonists, whose settlements birthed American democracy in the early 17th century . But those same European colonists also brought with them African slavery and Native American genocide.
Making the bay national park land could draw attention to Native American history and culture at a time when some tribes, including the Rappahannock and Chickahominy, have repatriated large tracts of lands from their ancestors that were wrested from them hundreds of years ago were. And it comes as scholars seek to expand knowledge of indigenous peoples in the region beyond some fairly well-documented areas.
“There is an entire history of Native American peoples and their history in the Chesapeake Bay region that is untapped,” said Julia A. King, an archaeologist at St. Mary’s College of Maryland who has done extensive work on Native American tribes in the DC region has carried out. “So much attention has been given to Williamsburg, Jamestown and Annapolis, and we need to shed more light on places where Native American stories have not been told as often,” she said. “They’ve adapted to a changing environment for thousands of years, and there’s an incredible history here.”
The process could be as simple as spreading Indian history and culture through exhibitions and publications at visitor centers run by the National Park Service, Richardson said. Or it could be a hassle to find federal funding for initiatives that connect Native American sites.
In 2007, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, now Virginia Humanities, and the Virginia Council on Indians created an 88-page guide to the Virginian Indian Heritage Trail, which included Indian reservations, heritage sites, and history. The guide, edited by the late Karenne Wood, a Monakan who helped drive federal tribe recognition, could be updated and expanded as part of the national recreation area, Richardson said. Highlighting Indian culture and its connection to the Bay might encourage others to treat the earth with the same care and respect that Native Americans tried to, she said.
“We were appointed by the Creator to be stewards of these things,” Richardson said.
Powhatan and His People: The 15,000 American Indians Pushed Aside by Jamestown’s Settlers
Stephen R. Adkins, chief of the Chickahominy tribe in Virginia, said he was pleased the proposed national recreation area would include a 19-member advisory commission with two Indigenous representatives — one each from Maryland and Virginia — to be chaired by a state or federal government recognized representatives would be selected tribe traditionally associated with the bay.
“The tribes have no say in what’s going on along the Chesapeake Bay unless they go to a senator or congressman to see what’s going on,” Adkins said. “So to be invited to the table – for me it is a strong signal that the voices of the local communities are valued and need to be heard.”
At the same time, some Native Americans are wary of the federal government’s past treatment of Indigenous peoples. In creating national parks — Mount Rushmore comes to mind, Adkins said — the federal government has often bulldozed Native American culture and sacred sites. In other instances, the National Park Service has sometimes ignored, downplayed, or misinterpreted Native American history in its signs and displays throughout the park system.
“We’re finding that a lot of our story has been glossed over or just not recorded,” Adkins said.
Native American history is unearthed on an island in southern Maryland
The word “Chesapeake” is believed to have meant “great water” or was the name of a village near its mouth (not “Great Shellfish Bay”, a common misconception).
When Captain John Smith and other settlers from Jamestown sailed into the Bay in April 1607 and landed at Tsenacomoco—an Algonquian word for “densely populated place” or “our place”—in the Tidewater region of Virginia, they found thriving towns and seasonal ones fishing camps before .
Powhatan—the name of the chief chief in the Tidewater region—oversaw a complex alliance whose population was an estimated 15,000 people in as many as 32 chiefdoms stretching between the James and Potomac river basins and as far inland as ships could travel.
Seeds of Empire and Vice found in Jamestown
Fields had been cleared and planted with corn, squash, and beans. Crabs, clams, and oysters were drawn from the bay’s waters, and allis shad flowed in such abundance that Smith attempted to scoop them out of the water with a frying pan, as he later recounted in a history of the colony. Native Americans bathed in the rivers and streams of the Continental Divide, a practice English colonists considered unhealthy.
Smith also found bustling towns: dugout canoes – hollowed out with fire and shellfish tools – navigated the waters between jetties full of messengers, merchants, or, in Powhatan’s case, tribes bringing tribute such as beads, copper, and deer skins.
However, within decades of the arrival of Europeans, disease and wars decimated the Native American population. Their land was taken, their culture and language suppressed. Repression lasted well into the 20th century under Virginia’s state-approved codes of racial segregation and white supremacy.
Four hundred years after the Wampanoag Indians helped the pilgrims, some still regret it
But the 400th anniversary of Jamestown marked a turning point for the Virginia tribes in their efforts to seek redress for the wrongs done to their ancestors and gain official federal recognition. There are now 11 state recognized and seven state recognized tribes in Virginia; Maryland has three state-recognized tribes (although one is disputed) and none that are federally recognized.
Mary Phillips, a Native American advocate who lives in northeast Washington and hails from the Laguna Tribe pueblo of New Mexico and the Omaha Tribe of Nebraska, said the inclusion of the bay in the national park system will not only highlight past tribal history, but also the present.
“These tribes have been almost decimated by newcomers,” Phillips said, “and the fact that they still exist is extremely important and people need to know and respect who these people are.”