Re-weaving the tale of native Maryland

At Hancock's Resolution, members of the Powhatan Nation try to close cultural gaps dating back millennia

  • Two members of the Powhatan Nation, Mary Hope (Keziah) Billings and her brother, David (Longeye) Holland, discuss Native American life in Maryland, past and present, at Hancock's Resolution, a historic northern Anne Arundel County park.
Two members of the Powhatan Nation, Mary Hope (Keziah) Billings… (Handout photo )
September 19, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

When white settlers arrived in what is now Virginia, bringing with them their strange and sometimes warlike ways, the Powhatan peoples of the region had some decisions to make.

The settlers had fired on Powhatans almost the moment they landed in 1607. Their leaders inadvertently insulted Chief Powhatan by asking him to kneel to accept a ceremonial crown. John Smith, president of the Jamestown colony, sent soldiers to drive many Powhatans from their homes.

"The clan mothers got together, talked and prayed: How will we handle this problem with the white settlers?" says Mary Hope (Keziah) Billings, a member of the modern Powhatan Nation. "A prophecy was handed down to us: 'If we cannot live in peace with the white man, we must hide in plain sight. We'll marry our [most] beautiful women to the settlers. In the fullness of time, [our nation] will be reborn.' "

Billings and her brother, David (Longeye) Holland, both of rural Monterey, Va., are part of that rebirth. This weekend, they visit Hancock's Resolution to offer a six-hour interactive presentation, "American Indian Lifeways," on the heritage and history of their people and their worlds past and present. "Our goal is to share our history and cultural knowledge," says Holland, 72, "in order to build better understanding between [these] peoples of different cultures."

In many ways, the gulf between the Powhatans — an interrelated assemblage of mostly Algonquin-speaking tribes with roots in tidewater Virginia — and the settlers never closed. Cheerful sorts by nature, Billings and Holland can speak edgily of the indignities their forebears suffered as they sought to keep their heritage alive. "For 300 years, our culture went underground," Holland says.

It's still here, they say, and in better and stronger shape than most realize. This weekend, they'll share some details.

Unexpected artifacts

For more than two centuries, most observers saw Hancock's Resolution — now a 26-acre park on Bodkins Creek in Pasadena — as a part of the settlers' tradition.

In 1785, Stephen Hancock Jr., a Revolutionary War veteran and a member of the fourth generation of Hancocks in Maryland, built the stone farmhouse that is still the main feature of the site. Members of the family lived there until 1962. It's now a part of the Anne Arundel County parks system, the site of exhibits and events that detail life along the Chesapeake before the Civil War. Hancock family members still serve as volunteers.

The organization that runs the place, the Friends of Hancock's Resolution, had little idea the site also held artifacts of a different tradition. Ten years ago, archaeologists helping with a plan to build a visitors center found lots of evidence of Indian life.

A posthole from the 1600s suggested a building — a surprise, since the area we now call Anne Arundel County was then a sort of demilitarized zone between rival tribes. Much more plentiful were objects from the Early Woodlands period, which dates to about 900 B.C.

Native Americans "were there for hundreds and hundreds of years, but what we found the most of was [material] from the Accokeek phase — a time period when people were using a certain type of pottery," says Al Luckenbach, the county archaeologist who led the dig. (Accokeek stoneware features distinctive exterior surfaces marked by cords.)

Luckenbach's team also found stone tools, knives, projectile points and scrapers from the era, as well as oyster shells left over from feasts. What emerged was a fuller portrait of the people who lived in the Chesapeake region during that time. The artifacts speak of a people who moved about the region seasonally, in search of acorns, deer, fish, oysters — whatever bounties the land and the bay made available.

By the time Stephen Hancock staked his claim, these early natives — and the 17th-century Indians who lived on the same spot long afterward — had long since died out, and their descendants had moved on. What they left behind was a colorful, if incomplete, picture of how they lived and who they were.

"There are no history books to turn to," says Luckenbach. "We're dealing with things that happened [as much as 3,000] years ago. Some of that can only be learned through archaeology. It's equally important to get the oral histories from these people, to learn what has descended to them in form of cultural memory. Putting [both sides] together creates the whole picture of what we know."

Bringing history to life

No one is sure what languages the Early Woodlands Indians spoke or what tribes they belonged to. It's unlikely they were direct forebears of the Algonquin-speaking Powhatan Nation.

But the two peoples almost certainly lived in similar ways, developing cultures centered on "exploiting the resources of the Chesapeake," in Luckenbach's words. Neither depended on agriculture, as many Indian tribes did. Both hunted with bows and arrows, fished and foraged, traveled and camped.

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