Keeping An Indian Culture Alive

October 16, 1994|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

FRIENDSVILLE -- Twenty men and women, some with feathers dangling from coal-black hair, some with moccasins as footwear, step purposefully in a circle around a barren pole they say reaches to the sky.

In pairs, they walk in cadence with the rhythmic beating of a drum, oblivious to the panoramic views the lofty pasture affords them of the surrounding forested mountains -- exploding in brilliant hues of red and yellow -- and the river valley below.

From distant vantage points in the ridges that fortress the Youghiogheny River, these conspicuous people might lead you to believe you've slipped into another century, when the Shawnees roamed these parts, hunting and fishing.

But this is the late 20th century, and, yes, the Shawnees are again here, atop a mountain overlooking Friendsville, celebrating the Fall Bread Dance, a post-harvest observance that is the last of the traditional summer ceremonies.

These forgotten nomadic Indians -- identified more with Oklahoma than the Western Maryland mountains -- occasionally surface, as they did last week when a Virginia businessman announced plans to interest the Shawnee in a proposed gambling casino and hotel atop a mountain overlooking Cumberland in neighboring Allegany County.

The Shawnees were among the many bands -- no one apparently knows for sure how many -- of Indians who lived in and roamed what is now Maryland. Among the better-known were the Nanticoke of the Eastern Shore and the Piscataway of the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay.

"Maryland was a stopover for a lot of tribes," says Archie Lynch, a spokesman for the Native American Center in Baltimore.

Heavy colonization forced the Indians to disperse. The Shawnees migrated from the Maryland mountains to the Ohio Valley and, eventually, to Kansas and Oklahoma.

Some Shawnees remained in and around Garrett County, however, because of marriages to colonists, and their families have lived in the hollows and on the mountains ever since.

Just how many Shawnees once roamed these parts or how many descendants remain is speculative, though.

"We don't know. Nobody knows," says Chief Joseph Raincrow, head of the Yougiogaheny River Band of Shawnee Indians, which re-established itself in these mountains in the early 1980s.

"We're not very big in terms of numbers," he says. "But the potential is big. There are a lot of eligible Shawnee people in the area who are not involved."

Chief Raincrow was selected by the band as chief. The group --which has about 200 members from across the nation and Canada -- was formed as part of a band in Ohio in 1980, but later separated.

The band's efforts at re-establishing the Shawnees in Maryland has been aided by Jim "Pappy" Ross Sr., who donated four acres of his farm to the Shawnee band a decade ago. Mr. Ross, 76, is a descendant of the Shawnees and of the town's founding family, the Friends, who came to the Youghiogheny River valley in the early 1700s.

The Shawnees, Mr. Ross says, allowed the Friends to live on the east side of the river and hunt and fish in the valley. The Indians taught the Friends how to survive on the frontier.

"I thought something should be done to show our appreciation," says Mr. Ross, whose 120-acre farm abuts the Shawnee tract. "This was their territory. I thought it was better to give it to them than let it get in the hands of some developer and ruin it."

The modern-day Shawnees, led by Chief Raincrow, a retired administrator and American Indian adviser at American University in Washington, return throughout the year in their station wagons and four-wheel-drive vehicles to set up tents and pop-up trailers for spring planting and fall harvest ceremonies, weddings and naming of the children ceremonies.

"We are living as Indians there," says Chief Raincrow, an Ohio native who moved to Maryland about 35 years ago and now lives in Bethesda. "That's the idea -- living the way our people used to when they lived there a long time ago."

The site, which is just above Interstate 68, also is the center of government for the band, Chief Raincrow says. An octagonal house has been erected there.

"We have dedicated the land as a sacred ceremonial site," Chief Raincrow says.

Ceremonies are conducted during the spring, summer and fall. About 60 people -- some from as far away as Ohio and New Jersey -- turned out one weekend this month for the Fall Bread Dance, which included a hunting foray into the woods, where a deer was taken, cleaned and roasted all day over a fire for a tribal feast.

They come here to celebrate and learn their heritage.

"When I was young, I used to run out in the woods -- I would hear someone calling my name," says Mike Fink, a 19-year-old Mohawk from Germantown. "It was a calling to my heritage. Other Indians will tell you the same thing."

Mr. Fink has been welcomed into the Youghiogheny camp even though he is a Mohawk, a traditional enemy of the Shawnees. But even non-Indians are often invited and welcomed, and tourists are drawn out of curiosity off the interstate.

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