Connected with the spirit

The Baltimore Sun

ELLIOTT'S ISLAND - The chief of the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indian People Inc. starts his days in pre-dawn darkness, stepping from his three-bedroom bungalow in this Eastern Shore village to putter through chores.

This morning, Sewell "Winterhawk" Fitzhugh plants a handful of asparagus in his sandy garden and scatters feed for a dozen chickens. He checks the mesh across the wire pen, security against roving eagles that might wish to make snacks of their domesticated cousins.

Then he walks into the space in the yard he has created for prayer, a circle perhaps 20 feet across, staked out by spindly cedar saplings decorated with colorful strips of fabric. Speaking mostly in English, sprinkling in a few words of Nanticoke, he stands facing east, in the way his grandmother taught him.

"You greet the sun; it's as simple or as complicated as that," says Fitzhugh, 54. "You put aside your anger, hatred, frustration. According to our oral tradition, you approach each day with a good heart."

This ritual complete, he hops into a beat-up Saturn for his commute to Easton and his job as a receiving clerk at a plant that makes toiletries for airlines.

Fitzhugh is leader of the Nause-Waiwash (nah-soo WAY-wash), a remnant of the Nanticoke tribe that lived in a substantial chunk of what is now Dorchester County when Capt. John Smith arrived 400 years ago.

The state of Maryland does not recognize the existence today of this or any other Indian tribe. But some 200 to 300 people who claim Nanticoke roots still live scattered about the Eastern Shore, and the tribe's women - who hold this right - voted Fitzhugh chief.

At the toiletries plant, Fitzhugh works four long days so that three-day weekends can be devoted to his unpaid position. He helps Nanticokes and other Native Americans who turn to him for advice. He presides over ceremonies marking births and deaths. He argues to regain Indian remains that the state keeps in a museum in Calvert County.

And he struggles to correct the notion that the Eastern Shore tribes disappeared long ago, wiped out by disease, intermarriage or the Europeans who settled the region.

"I can't tell you how many times people have asked me if I'm a real Indian," says Fitzhugh, who makes frequent appearances at schools and other forums. "One little boy came up and said, 'I thought we shot you all.' "

Heritage denied

Fitzhugh looks nothing like the chiseled Plains Indians of American cinema. He has a bald pate, ringed by wispy white locks grown to shoulder length. He is stout and, as he is fond of saying, stands exactly 5 feet and one-half inch tall. "My daddy was 5-foot, and I was determined to beat that," he explains.

Usually, he dresses in denim shirts and pants, silver and turquoise rings, a string tie and a Western-style hat. More formal occasions prompt him to break out a similar outfit, all in black. "I still get funny looks or teasing about dressing up like an Indian," he says.

Growing up in Cambridge in the 1950s, he sometimes drew a more hostile reaction. Fitzhugh doesn't like to talk about that. But a question about his moccasins prompts him to share a bad memory from junior high - when he was roughed up by a group of boys who ridiculed his footwear.

"Racism sometimes wasn't as subtle back then," he says, declining to elaborate.

His wife, Katherine - the two have been together since high school - says her family was never open about their Indian roots. "Outside, you had to deny it," she says. "Among ourselves, you could talk about it. It's sad."

Even in his family, Fitzhugh says, there wasn't unanimity about revealing their heritage. He was the only one of five grandchildren who showed interest in learning tribal traditions from their grandmother.

He was influenced by the African-American civil rights movement, which came to Cambridge in fires and rioting when he was 13. He remembers Maryland National Guard troops barricading his street. From the nightly news, he learned of the American Indian Movement, with its confrontational approach. The group's visibility was a boon to all Native Americans, Fitzhugh says.

Intense spirituality

"They helped, just in letting people know that there were Indian people right here, too," he says. "And we realized that we didn't have to just take everything silently."

An intense spirituality led him to consider study to become a Methodist minister. But his father died while Fitzhugh was still in high school, so upon graduation he took a job at a Cambridge printing plant to help support his family.

He remained interested in Indian affairs and, in 1990, was among a group of Nause-Waiwash who decided to be more organized and elect leaders. The women chose him.

Tribal council member Mary Lipsius says there was little to debate in selecting Fitzhugh. "It was all Sewell making everything happen," says Lipsius, 33, who has served on the council since she was a teenager. "He was already working on issues. He was the backbone. He's the reason we're here."

The tribe today is a tax-exempt organization that meets every two weeks at the Dorchester County library. Fitzhugh sees his role as an advocate for his tribe and other Native Americans, who often turn to him for help with such everyday problems as dealing with a landlord. His cell phone's message bank is usually maxed out.

The state has never recognized the Nause-Waiwash or any of the six indigenous Maryland groups that claim lineage back to 1790 or earlier. Previous governors have rejected recognition of any group as a tribe for fear it might lead to casino gambling.

Seeking recognition

In 1995, the Piscataway filed a petition for recognition that would grant minority status to the tribe, making members eligible for grants and other benefits. The petition has languished. Indian leaders are encouraged that Gov. Martin O'Malley, who met with them over lunch last fall, has ordered a review of the 13-year-old document. Fitzhugh thinks acceptance of the Piscataway petition would clear a path for recognition of other Native American groups.

"It doesn't make sense to go through developing another petition when there's one that has been gathering dust all these years," Fitzhugh says. "This is our identity we're talking about."

As a chief who "carries a pipe" for ceremonial functions, Fitzhugh gets calls from Indians who need a religious leader for deaths, births and marriages. "It's a way to connect," he says. "We are all attached, and there are moments when you feel that."

Educating the world

But one of his most important roles, he says, is to help the rest of the world realize that he and his people are still here. He has made dozens of appearances at schools and service clubs during his 18-year tenure. The Nause-Waiwash set up educational booths at fairs and sponsor a riverside festival each year in the town of Vienna, near the heart of their ancestral lands.

"There are still lots of people who can't believe we even exist," Fitzhugh says. "Then there I am."

Archaeologist Virginia Busby has spent much of her career excavating a site called Chicone, just north of Vienna. Chicone was a village that had been home to Nanticoke emperors for centuries before John Smith came.

'Re-emerge, reassert'

The village dates back at least 12,000 years, says Busby. It was a reservation for 70 years, until it was disbanded in 1768. After that, Busby says, many native people simply left, moving to the marshes - trapping, hunting, farming and harvesting crabs, oysters and fish as they had always done.

"In the 1970s, people began to re-emerge, to reassert their culture," she says.

Since 1995, Sewell and Katherine Fitzhugh have lived on Elliott's Island, a remote, rural community 18 miles south of Vienna. It is a place that almost certainly was inhabited by the Nanticoke before European settlers came.

Sitting on high ground that has never flooded, the Fitzhugh home is surrounded by inlets and bogs with towering pines that make up nearly 50,000 acres of state and federal preserves that many call the "Maryland Everglades."

Fitzhugh knows the murky, shallow rivers - the Nanticoke, the Blackwater, the Transquaking, the Chicamacomico - and their untold twisting tributaries that sustained his ancestors.

With a baby grandson about to turn a year old, Fitzhugh says his spirits are good about the future. His work has had an impact, and new leaders seem to be emerging, some of them from the tribe's seven-member ruling council.

"In the last 20 years, there has been a rising recognition. There have been gains," Fitzhugh says. "I believe that a lot more people know we are here - know we've always been here and that we always will be here."

chris.guy@baltsun.com

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