Rediscovering A Sacred Site On The Potomac: The Piscataway Hub Of Moyaone (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

Transcripts

Rediscovering The Piscataway Hub Of Moyaone

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
So we just heard some of the present day traditions of people in the Washington region. The traditions we'll hear about next come from people who date back centuries, millennia even, all around the Chesapeake Bay and along the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers.

MS. GABRIELLE TAYAC

00:00:16
So the site where I'm taking you is a very significant place.

SHEIR

00:00:22
We're on the banks of the latter river now in Accokeek, Md. with Gabrielle Tayac.

TAYAC

00:00:28
I'm a historian at the National Museum of American Indian and I'm a member of the Piscataway Nation.

SHEIR

00:00:33
A Native American tribe that historically was one of the region's most populous and powerful. The name Piscataway, did the people take their name from the land or did the name of the land come from the people?

TAYAC

00:00:44
The people are so highly identified with their place that they take the name from the place. And Piscataway means where the waters blend.

SHEIR

00:00:53
We're above the waters now on a boardwalk in Piscataway Park and as you stroll over wetlands teaming with wildlife...

TAYAC

00:01:00
There's a bald eagle flying right there. You can see it.

SHEIR

00:01:02
Oh yeah. Yeah. As in most parks, you'll see all sorts of signage about the animals, the plants, the recent project to restore the shoreline...

TAYAC

00:01:10
But there's very little about what the Native American history is. And this is really one of the most important sites on the East Coast and is in continuous practice as a pilgrimage site.

SHEIR

00:01:22
But Tayac is among those fighting to change that because this place...

TAYAC

00:01:27
It's called the Accokeek Creek site or Moyaone.

SHEIR

00:01:30
...was the Piscataway's central chiefdom at the time of European contact. Though Gabrielle Tayac, whose Uncle is the Piscataway Indian Nations present hereditary chief, says the settlement predated that contact.

TAYAC

00:01:42
This place has been occupied for at least 11,000 years.

SHEIR

00:01:46
Quite a bit.

TAYAC

00:01:47
That's how far the archeology goes back.

SHEIR

00:01:50
Nowadays all you see here, basically, is a big field with a sweat lodge.

TAYAC

00:01:55
You can see it's made out of saplings and heavy blankets.

SHEIR

00:01:59
But back then...

TAYAC

00:02:00
It would've been a stockaded village. People living in Piscataway called them witch huts that were covered in weeds that were the domed roofs. And large extended families lived together in a matrilineal way.

SHEIR

00:02:14
They also lived very seasonally. And this connection to the land, to the earth is reflected in their seasonal ceremonies, all of which involve that sweat lodge, by the way. There's the mid winter ceremony in February.

TAYAC

00:02:25
A long time ago, they would be in hunting camps. And so then they would want to come back together.

SHEIR

00:02:30
The awakening of Mother Earth in April.

TAYAC

00:02:32
Which talks about us fulfilling our original instructions to be stewards and caretakers of the earth so Mother Earth will fulfill her responsibilities and bring things back.

SHEIR

00:02:43
Then the autumnal green corn ceremony...

TAYAC

00:02:45
And that gives thanks for all of the harvest and the corn coming in.

SHEIR

00:02:50
And Novembers feast for the dead.

TAYAC

00:02:52
Too remember our ancestors and let things go back into rest.

SHEIR

00:02:58
Speaking of ancestors, Moyaone wasn't just the Piscataway's principle village, it also was a burial ground.

TAYAC

00:03:04
They are in what they call ossuary burials that are hundreds to over 1,000 years old, all throughout the landscape. But because they've been there for so long, if you don't see them, they don't look like cemeteries.

SHEIR

00:03:16
Although one burial site...

TAYAC

00:03:18
I'd like to take you over to the grave site, (unintelligible) walk over there.

SHEIR

00:03:23
You will see it's next to the sweat lodge and marked by a tree.

TAYAC

00:03:27
So this red cedar tree, we call the tree of life.

SHEIR

00:03:31
Planted by Gabrielle Tayac's grandfather, Turkey Tayac, a Piscataway leader, activist and herb doctor.

TAYAC

00:03:37
Turkey Tayac planted this tree in 1976 on top an ancient ossuary where there are hundreds of people buried below us, from ancestral times.

SHEIR

00:03:49
And Turkey Tayac is actually buried there, too, making him the only Native American buried in a national park after its creation. But that burial didn't come easy. See, in the 1960s, Turkey supported the creation of Piscataway Park on one condition...

TAYAC

00:04:03
That he could be buried here and that his people could always come here freely for cultural and spiritual purposes.

SHEIR

00:04:10
He and the secretary of the interior shook on it and in the 1970s, as Turkey grew ill and sensed the end drawing near, he went back to the interior department, but they had no record of the agreement.

TAYAC

00:04:22
And he was really shocked because he was born in 1895 so he thought making a verbal agreement and shaking on it was enough. But they never signed anything.

SHEIR

00:04:31
So Turkey began lobbying for his own burial at Moyaone. When he died in 1978, his children and grandchildren took on his cause.

TAYAC

00:04:39
And we were told that we would have to get an act of Congress passed in order to have him buried in a National Park.

SHEIR

00:04:46
They put Turkey's body in a mausoleum, but they didn't back down. Letters of support came pouring in.

TAYAC

00:04:51
And finally the act was passed in 1979, a year later. And he was buried here.

SHEIR

00:04:58
Of course, what happened at that burial is another story, one Gabrielle Tayac, who was 12 at the time, remembers well. It was a chilly gray November day, she says, sleet was streaming from the sky and when the funeral procession reached the gravel road that leads to the park, the park service and the land owners up the road refused to let the hearse go by.

TAYAC

00:05:19
And we had an act of Congress, but there was so much racial animosity down here during that time period. Things have changed. You know, things are better, but they did not want to comply.

SHEIR

00:05:31
So Turkey's family and friends did the only thing they could.

TAYAC

00:05:35
They had to hand-carry the casket from all the way up the road...

SHEIR

00:05:41
And since then, at every feast of the dead, that precession is recreated. A burial shroud is carried down the road to the tree where people hang little red bundles of tobacco on the branches, each bundle representing a loved one who's died.

TAYAC

00:05:55
And when the wind blows, it carries the prayers up to the spirit world to intercede for you. So it's like a place where life and death converge. And it's not sad or creepy, you know, it's really more about making a connection back.

SHEIR

00:06:11
Back to the earth, to your ancestors, to your roots. And Gabrielle Tayac says she's proud of her Piscataway roots, even if, after years of disease, colonization, war and assimilation, the tribe's numbers aren't what they used to be. The Piscataway aren't also recognized by state or federal government, though Tayac is among those fighting for recognition. As for Moyaone, one day, achieving more recognition, Tayac says, she feels more and more people are coming to understand the true meaning of the place.

TAYAC

00:06:41
You're not just walking on a field and it's not just a stand of trees. This is so rich with life and ancestral deep time, the way you might find in the caves in France. And it's just a matter of changing your perspective and start to open your eyes to a different of seeing what's already here.

SHEIR

00:07:04
To see pictures of Moyaone and to learn more about the Piscataway Indian Nation, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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