Re-weaving the tale of native Maryland

When white settlers arrived in what is now Virginia, bringing with them their strange and sometimes warlike ways, the Powhatan peoples of the region had some decisions to make.

The settlers had fired on Powhatans almost the moment they landed in 1607. Their leaders inadvertently insulted Chief Powhatan by asking him to kneel to accept a ceremonial crown. John Smith, president of the Jamestown colony, sent soldiers to drive many Powhatans from their homes.

"The clan mothers got together, talked and prayed: How will we handle this problem with the white settlers?" says Mary Hope (Keziah) Billings, a member of the modern Powhatan Nation. "A prophecy was handed down to us: 'If we cannot live in peace with the white man, we must hide in plain sight. We'll marry our [most] beautiful women to the settlers. In the fullness of time, [our nation] will be reborn.' "

Billings and her brother, David (Longeye) Holland, both of rural Monterey, Va., are part of that rebirth. This weekend, they visit Hancock's Resolution to offer a six-hour interactive presentation, "American Indian Lifeways," on the heritage and history of their people and their worlds past and present. "Our goal is to share our history and cultural knowledge," says Holland, 72, "in order to build better understanding between [these] peoples of different cultures."

In many ways, the gulf between the Powhatans — an interrelated assemblage of mostly Algonquin-speaking tribes with roots in tidewater Virginia — and the settlers never closed. Cheerful sorts by nature, Billings and Holland can speak edgily of the indignities their forebears suffered as they sought to keep their heritage alive. "For 300 years, our culture went underground," Holland says.

It's still here, they say, and in better and stronger shape than most realize. This weekend, they'll share some details.

Unexpected artifacts

For more than two centuries, most observers saw Hancock's Resolution — now a 26-acre park on Bodkins Creek in Pasadena — as a part of the settlers' tradition.

In 1785, Stephen Hancock Jr., a Revolutionary War veteran and a member of the fourth generation of Hancocks in Maryland, built the stone farmhouse that is still the main feature of the site. Members of the family lived there until 1962. It's now a part of the Anne Arundel County parks system, the site of exhibits and events that detail life along the Chesapeake before the Civil War. Hancock family members still serve as volunteers.

The organization that runs the place, the Friends of Hancock's Resolution, had little idea the site also held artifacts of a different tradition. Ten years ago, archaeologists helping with a plan to build a visitors center found lots of evidence of Indian life.

A posthole from the 1600s suggested a building — a surprise, since the area we now call Anne Arundel County was then a sort of demilitarized zone between rival tribes. Much more plentiful were objects from the Early Woodlands period, which dates to about 900 B.C.

Native Americans "were there for hundreds and hundreds of years, but what we found the most of was [material] from the Accokeek phase — a time period when people were using a certain type of pottery," says Al Luckenbach, the county archaeologist who led the dig. (Accokeek stoneware features distinctive exterior surfaces marked by cords.)

Luckenbach's team also found stone tools, knives, projectile points and scrapers from the era, as well as oyster shells left over from feasts. What emerged was a fuller portrait of the people who lived in the Chesapeake region during that time. The artifacts speak of a people who moved about the region seasonally, in search of acorns, deer, fish, oysters — whatever bounties the land and the bay made available.

By the time Stephen Hancock staked his claim, these early natives — and the 17th-century Indians who lived on the same spot long afterward — had long since died out, and their descendants had moved on. What they left behind was a colorful, if incomplete, picture of how they lived and who they were.

"There are no history books to turn to," says Luckenbach. "We're dealing with things that happened [as much as 3,000] years ago. Some of that can only be learned through archaeology. It's equally important to get the oral histories from these people, to learn what has descended to them in form of cultural memory. Putting [both sides] together creates the whole picture of what we know."

Bringing history to life

No one is sure what languages the Early Woodlands Indians spoke or what tribes they belonged to. It's unlikely they were direct forebears of the Algonquin-speaking Powhatan Nation.

But the two peoples almost certainly lived in similar ways, developing cultures centered on "exploiting the resources of the Chesapeake," in Luckenbach's words. Neither depended on agriculture, as many Indian tribes did. Both hunted with bows and arrows, fished and foraged, traveled and camped.

In other words, when Billings and Holland interact with visitors this weekend, dressed in handmade native garb, they'll be bringing to life the ways of all Indian peoples of this region. For the siblings, the task will be bittersweet.

On the one hand, both thrive on sharing information that has been passed down to them. Among other things, Holland will share pre-contact history, discuss housing and show off tools.

"Some people call them weapons," he says. "A bow and arrow was not a weapon as people think of it today. It was a tool for harvesting food."

Billings, a former chair of the Maryland Commission of Indian Affairs, will talk about pre-contact clothing, prepare foods like pumpkin stew (a hearty mix of onions, pepper, corn, pumpkin and ham) and speak at length about the lives of mothers, who she says used chicken bones as teething rings and fashioned mullen, a tobacco plant, into diapers.

Maybe more surprising, she explains, is that until the English arrived, the Powhatan culture was fully matriarchal. Women met to decide whether a tribe would go to war. They built and owned the houses.

"The only thing the man owned was the clothing on his back and his tools," she says. "If his wife was ready to get rid of him for some reason, she put his moccasins and tools outside the longhouse, and that was it."

Billings and Holland, more than three-quarters Indian by blood, have always straddled cultures in ways big and small, and the effort can cause results bordering on the comical.

Holland has studied plants and medicines with national elders. "There's more wild food out outside my window than you can shake a stick at," he says. "Some people call it weeds." He insists he could live off the stuff if he weren't so lazy.

For Billings, too, old and new can collide in funny ways. "My husband was a truck driver for many years," she says from the couple's home in central Virginia's Allegheny Mountains. "Once in a while he'd call from the road and say, 'Are my moccasins on the front porch yet?' "

The real experts

After the Indian sites were discovered, Jim Morrison, president of the Friends of Hancock's Resolution, wasted no time adding Native American events to the museum's calendar, which already featured the commerce and maritime life of the Chesapeake region as well as War of 1812 re-enactments.

Many museums similar to Hancock's use Caucasian historians to illuminate the Native American past, he says, but "Indians interpreting their own history just do a heck of a job," he says.

Maybe that's because only they can relate to the paradoxes undergirding their lives since the settlers hit Roanoke and Jamestown.

Even then, Holland says, the newcomers failed to "get" the world they were seeing for the first time. Seeing it through a Eurocentric prism, they were unable to comprehend, say, the social structure of the Powhatan nation, a loosely connected assemblage of individual communes that contained a total of between 14,000 and 20,000 people.

The settlers wrongly decided that every village was a separate tribe. They termed the Powhatan Nation a "confederacy," a word that implies greater obedience to central authority than the Powhatans practiced toward Wahunsunacawh, the leader who affiliated them. (It was the English who dubbed him "Chief Powhatan.")

The textbooks Holland read while growing up, he says, were rife with such "facts" — information he and others knew to be untrue. The errors only deepened their sense of dispossession.

Holland and Billings, who have presented together at Hancock's Resolution four times, have made it their goal to set that right. "I've had some glorious arguments with archaeologists over these matters," Holland says, laughing. "Many who are out there in the field, collecting [knowledge] about world history, are coming closer to what we believe. But the fact they've got degrees doesn't mean they know anything about our … history."

Holland knows from personal research, reading a variety of available books and family lore, for example, that residents of the villages that made up the Powhatan Nation in the 17th century not only knew one another well but liberally intermarried, creating a wide-ranging community that sprawled throughout the region.

He and Billings have spent lots of time getting to know their people.

"We've got relatives on both sides of the bay," he says. "The whole Chesapeake is interrelated to a great degree — sometimes more than you'd like to admit. But genealogy leads where it leads."

How many left?

It's hard to say how many Powhatans survive. Some consider it extinct as a tribe, but Holland believes that nearly half of all people who have lived near the Chesapeake for at least five generations have Indian blood, much of it Powhatan. "Many [of those people] don't know it and many others won't admit it, so your guess is as good as mine," he says.

The vagueness stems partly from the way native people took their culture underground. Starting in the 1700s, Powhatans stopped holding public ceremonies. Many joined churches or took Christian names so they could acquire property deeds.

Many settlers whose wives died married Indian women, a fact Holland says is less evident in the public records than it is in the faces of their descendants. "I meet people all the time who say, 'There are no Indians in my family,' and I take one look at them and laugh," he says. "You wear your genes all over your face, if someone knows what to look for."

Even the siblings' mother, who grew up in segregated Virginia, kept out of the sun as much as possible lest it darken her skin. That might have gotten her kicked out of the white schools. "It just wasn't good to say you were an Indian," Billings says.

Many Native Americans still opt to avoid the public eye, but for others, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a turning point. "Since then we've been coming out, actively living our lives and being able to talk about who we are," says Billings, allowing Indians from disparate tribes to compare notes, share and cross-reference family histories, and in general affirm a cultural identity that was long hidden from view.

If this Sunday's presentation is like prior ones, as few as 10 or as many as several dozen visitors will wander through Hancock's Resolution as the two speak, do demonstrations, field questions, crack jokes and engage their guests in conversation. "Sometimes there will be folks who know a lot of things we don't, and that's exciting," Holland says.

The rebirth the prophecy spoke about is still a work in progress. To this day, the state of Maryland declines to recognize any tribes within its borders. (Virginia, by contrast, recognizes hundreds). At times, the knowledge gap can feel downright personal.

"I can't tell you how many times people have said to me, 'You're a real Indian? I thought Indians have been dead for 300 years,' " Holland says. "We don't have a problem with children asking that. They're curious. Adults? They really ought to know."

jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

If you go

WHAT: Indian Lifeways program

WHERE: Hancock's Resolution, 2795 Bayside Beach Road, Pasadena

WHEN: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 19

ADMISSION: $2.50 per person, $5 per family. Friends of Hancock's Resolution members admitted free.

INFORMATION: Go to historichancocksresolution.org.

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