On the banks of the Potomac River, in Accokeek, Md., lies a site considered sacred by the Native American tribe that was once the region’s most populous and powerful.
Gabrielle Tayac, a historian at the National Museum of the American Indian and member of the Piscataway Indian Nation, says Moyaone, Piscataway’s principal village, located in Piscataway Park, dates back at least 11,000 years, and “is really one of the most important sites on the east coast, and is in continuous practice as a pilgrimage site.”
The Piscataway people lived very seasonally, and this connection to the land and earth is reflected in their seasonal ceremonies, from the midwinter ceremony in February, to the Awakening of Mother Earth in April, to the autumnal Green Corn ceremony, to November's Feast for the Dead. Tayac says the Feast was meant to remember their ancestors and let things go back to rest.
Moyaone wasn't just the Piscataway's principal village. It also was a burial ground full of ossuary burials that Tayac says are hundreds to over a thousand years old. One of the burial sites is marked by a red cedar tree, which the Piscataway call "The Tree of Life." Tayac says her grandfather, Turkey Tayac, planted that tree in 1976 on top of an ancient ossuary where there are hundreds of people buried from ancestral times.
Fighting for a proper burial
Turkey Tayac, a Piscataway leader, activist and herb doctor, was buried beneath that tree, as well, but that burial didn't come easy. In the 1960s, Turkey supported the creation of Piscataway Park, on one condition: that he could be buried there, and that his people could always visit freely, for cultural and spiritual purposes.
Turkey and the Secretary of the Interior shook on the deal. 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.
"He was really shocked, because he was born in 1895 so he thought making a verbal agreement and shaking on it was enough," says Tayac. "But they never signed anything."
So Turkey began lobbying for his own burial at Moyaone. When he died in 1978, his children and grandchildren took on his cause. They were told they needed an act of Congress to have him buried in a national park. They put Turkey's body in a mausoleum, but they didn't back down. Letters of support came pouring in, and the act was passed in 1979, a year after Turkey's death.
Tayac was 12 years old when her grandfather was laid to rest. She remembers it was a chilly November day, with sleet streaming from the sky. But when the funeral procession reached the gravel road that leads to the oark, the Park Service, and the landowners up the road, refused to let the hearse go by.
"We had an act of Congress," she says, "but there was so much racial animosity down here during that time period - things have changed! Things are better - but they did not want to comply."
So, Turkey's family and friends did the only thing they could: they carried the casket, by hand, all the way to the burial site. And since then, at every Feast of the Dead, that procession 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.
"And when the wind blows, it carries the prayers up to the spirit world to intercede for you," Tayac says. "So it's like a place where life and death converge. And it's not sad, or creepy. It's really more about making a connection back."
Recognizing the Piscataway tribe
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 also aren't recognized by state or federal government, though Tayac is among those fighting for recognition. She says she feels more and more people are coming to understand the true meaning of the place.
In January 2012, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley issued groundbreaking executive orders giving the Piscataway formal recognition as a distinct people. And Tayac says that's a huge move.But as for Moyaone one day achieving more recognition, she says she feels more and more people are coming to understand the true meaning of the place.
"You're not just walking on a field and it's not just a stand of trees," she says. "This is so rich with life and ancestral deep, time the way you might find in the caves in France. It's just a matter of changing your perspective, and start to open your eyes to a different way of seeing what's already here."
[Music: "Mahk Jchi (Heartbeat Drum Song)" by Ulali from Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women]
Photos: Piscataway Park
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