Until very recently, the totem pole has been the only well-known symbol of American Indian culture. That seems to be changing.
"Movieslike 'Dances With Wolves,' 'Black Robe,' they've spurred a lot of interest," said My Raven Sky, a Nanticoke Indian who recently opened Prairie Buffalo, a Crownsville store specializing in American Indian works.
"I try to educate people when they come in here," Sky said. "Whenmost people think of the American Indian, they think totem pole. That's all they know.
"They know the so-called popular tribes -- the Navajo, Sioux and Cherokee. They know nothing about the lesser-known tribes. Many don't know there are Native Americans right here in Maryland. So when they come in here, I take them over to the map and I show them where I'm from, right there on the Eastern Shore," Sky added,pointing to a colorful map that depicts where each tribe is concentrated.
In fact, the 1990 census reported a 38 percent increase from1980 in the number of people identifying themselves as American Indians. In Maryland, the number of Indians counted increased by 62 percent from 1980 to 1990, with the census recording more than 13,000 Indians in the state.
There are two reasons behind the increase, said Patricia King, director of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs.
"Many people are realizing they do have some roots in the Indian community, particularly in the East, where there was more of a mix," King said. "In Maryland, we know that from early on there was a lot of intermarrying, an early mix with both blacks and whites.
"You had a lot of people who were misidentified as brown-skinned or mulatto.American Indians weren't even a part of the census until 1890. And you had a lot of people who didn't want to admit they were Indians. Now, it's just the opposite. You have people who want to be identified as Indians because they believe there are some benefits attached, such as minority scholarships or programs."
Even more so, people are becoming more aware of the role of American Indians in history, King said.
"The focus on 1992 and the (500th) anniversary of Columbus' so-called encounter with the New World has brought about a new interpretation of his actions, and of history," King said.
Sky said people who are learning about American Indians, as well as those who knowthe culture, find their way to the Prairie Buffalo, located in the former Crownsville train depot at 1397 Generals Highway.
Wearing one of the feathered earrings she created, as well as a Lakota choker and medallion and many other pieces of jewelry, Sky shows visitors around her store with such enthusiasm that it is clear the shop is more than just a business to her.
"Through my family I had a lot of collectibles," Sky said. "My grandmother really spurred my interest. Sheused to tell me so many stories about our people.
"I decided I didn't want to lose that. I didn't want something to happen to her, andthen I wouldn't know the stories, the history," she added.
For a while, Sky said she had lost part of the connection to her heritage. She spent her early years living in Illinois, isolated from other Indians. However, both her parents and grandparents always made an effort to instill her with the family traditions, Sky said.
The family's efforts paid off. Stepping inside her shop is like walking into another world. American Indian music fills the air, and the shelves are stocked with deer dance wands, painted buffalo shoulders and knives carved from antlers. Sky said the skins and bones are taken after the animals have died of natural causes. "Nothing is killed just for the sake of getting its skull or hide," she said.
The store stocks paintings, masks, wreaths, rugs, drums, cards and T-shirts. Traditional clothing from various tribes is displayed alongside modern clothing. All items, however, are made by Indians.
Sky made some of the items herself. Others come from various reservations.
Nearly every tribe, from the Zapotecs of Mexico to the Lakotas of South Dakota to theMohawks of New York, finds representation in Sky's shop. Strangely enough, Sky stocks no items representing her tribe, the Nanticoke.
"One of the elders made me some beautiful dolls but she made me promise not to sell them," Sky said. "I took them home. They were made just for me. But she's promised to make some more."