It is a common misconception that Indians no longer live in the Chesapeake Bay region. There are tens of thousands of people in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia who identify as American Indian. Chesapeake Bay American Indians are still here today.
In 1607 the English documented many Algonquian-speaking tribes in what is now Virginia. Today, 7 of the historic tribes of Virginia are descendents of these Algonquian speakers. Of the more than 20 historic tribes belonging to the Siouan-speaking peoples of the piedmont and mountain regions, today 1 tribe in Virginia, 2 in North Carolina, and 1 on the state line between them still live in either Virginia or North Carolina. In addition there are descendent communities of native peoples in all of the states around the Bay.
Today, the cultures of Virginia’s tribes and descendent communities are vibrant and thriving, testimony to the fortitude of their ancestors and their peoples’ continuing determination to retain and reclaim their heritage. The Pamunkey tribe is the first Virginia tribe to be recognized by the federal government.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has recognized these 11 tribes:
Visit tribal sites along the Virginia Heritage Trail.
Hear more about Virginia Indians today from members of the Rappahannock, Monacan, Chickahominy, and Mattaponi tribes in this Virginia Foundation for the Humanities radio series:
In the last census, more than 40,000 individuals in Maryland identified themselves as being American Indian or part American Indian. While pockets of American Indian tribes and groups cover both the eastern and western shores of Maryland, more than half of the state’s native population lives near Baltimore and Washington, D.C.
At least eight known tribes or groups of American Indians are native to the state of Maryland. There are also members of several tribes who are not native to the state who now live in Maryland. About a third of the 17,000 American Indians living in the Baltimore area are Lumbee, a tribe with roots in North Carolina.
In January, 2012, the state of Maryland formally recognized two Maryland Indian tribes. Piscataway Indian Nation, and Piscataway Conoy Tribe. This was the first time that the state of Maryland had taken the official action of recognizing a petition for Maryland Indian Status. You can read the Executive Orders recognizing the Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway Conoy Tribe.
In 1976 the Maryland General Assembly created the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs (MCIA) to represent and serve the state’s native communities. Comprised of commissioners from Maryland tribes, this official statewide agency provides a forum for cooperation and communication within the native population in the state and acts as the liaison between Maryland’s natives and the state and federal governments.
Today, the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs serves the following Maryland indigenous tribes:
In 2007, representatives of many of these tribes participated in “Patuxent Encounters,” a festival at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum to celebrate and embrace the rich culture and history of Maryland Indians. Listen to sounds from a Piscataway dance demonstration performed as part of the celebration:
Learn More about the Algonquian-Speaking Indians of Maryland.
The Significance of the Dance Circle
To many cultures, dance is a form of art or entertainment. To American Indian peoples, dance has many meanings and can be a very spiritual act. Dances and songs are handed down from generation to generation, and are a way of keeping parts of the American Indian culture alive. American Indian dance can exist in many forms at powwows, festivals, performances, or spiritual ceremonies. Dance is often accompanied by singers and a drum.
In the powwow tradition, the drumbeat is considered to be the heartbeat of First Nations peoples and their way of life. The traditional drum is a highly respected and sacred instrument, and there is certain etiquette involved with its care and play. For example, the drum is never left unattended. Nothing is ever set down on it, nor is anyone allowed to reach across it.
The physical space in which the dance takes place is also important. It is in the shape of a circle and represents Creation—the never-ending, constantly renewing “Sacred Hoop” of life. The circle is sacred. Within it all things exist and are equal. The dance circle is blessed before any activity begins.
Check the calendar of events for powwows or other festivities where American Indian dances may occur.
The original inhabitants of what is now Pennsylvania included the Lenape, or Delaware, tribe and the Susquehannock tribe. Other tribes, particularly the Nanticoke and the Shawnee, migrated into Pennsylvania and New Jersey after the Europeans arrived.
In the early 1600s, there were an estimated 5,000-7,000 Susquehannock, but by 1700, their numbers had dwindled to 300, probably due to disease. According to historical accounts in 1763, a mob lynched the remaining 20 known Susquehannock, tragically extinguishing the tribe and its Iroquoian language. Descendents of the Susquahannock may remain, but there is no known descendent community.
Today, there are no federally recognized Indian tribes in Pennsylvania, although the most recent census reports an American Indian population in Pennsylvania of more than 12,000. The Lenape continue to have a modern presence and are working to preserve the heritage of the native Algonquian-speaking tribes of eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.
The Nanticoke tribe, also Algonquian speakers, originally occupied the area between the Delaware and Chesapeake bays in what is today Maryland and Delaware. Today the Nanticoke Indian Association is officially recognized by the State of Delaware.
American Indian communities have supported the creation of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. The trail is an opportunity to share knowledge about the vibrant native societies that occupied the Chesapeake region for thousands of years before the arrival of the English colonists. The American Indian perspective adds to our understanding of the 17th-century Chesapeake Bay and the impact of Smith’s explorations.