Connected with the spirit

Eastern Shore chief keeps culture of local tribe alive

June 02, 2008|By Chris Guy | Chris Guy,Sun reporter

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."

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