Nanticoke past and present on display at 35th annual powwow

Four hundred years of history will dance through Delmarva as the Nanticoke Indian Association celebrates its 35th Annual Powwow on Sept. 8 and 9.

Coastal Point • File photo    : Charles Eagletail dances during last year’s Nanticoke Indian Powwow near Millsboro.Coastal Point • File photo
Charles Eagletail dances during last year’s Nanticoke Indian Powwow near Millsboro.

While the powwow is a relatively recently phenomenon, the Nanticokes were part of local culture long before the modern era.

Explorer John Smith actually made the first modern record of the Nanticoke Indians in 1608 when he traveled the Kuskarawaok River, now known as the Nanticoke River, on Maryland’s lower Eastern Shore. The tribe’s original name, “Nentego,” meant “people of the tidewater,” and the river folk lived well, between farming, fishing and living off the forests between Seaford and Vienna, Md.

Nanticoke Indian Museum Coordinator Sterling Street explained that the Nanticokes were farmers, not warriors, which is why they were protected by the larger Powhatan, and later, Iroquois, nations.

Although they were not a warring tribe, the Nanticokes were, curiously, known as poison masters.

“We were good at poisoning things,” said Street, adding the Lenni Lenape people went to the Nanticoke for potions that could do many things, including add a little extra power to an arrowhead when hunting.

Contrary to European tradition of burial, the Nanticokes also carried their dead with them. Remains were stored in a single house, but the Nanticokes wished to keep the bones or other remains of very important people nearby when migrating to a new place.

However, the Nanticokes were among the first Native Americans to learn that European colonists brought animals and disease that overran the land. By 1698, the Nanticoke had been granted their first land reservation, according to Street.

During this and a later attempt at reservation life, the Indians lost out to squatters, especially when the tribe moved inland during winters. In times of conflict, settlers would burn the Indians’ wigwams, which were dome-shaped tents made by stretching animal skins over a framework of sticks and poles.

“All the Eastern Shore tribes were having the same problems,” said Street, mentioning the Piscataway and Choptank tribes.

After losing their reservation near Laurel and Seaford, some of the Nanticoke tribe split off to live near what is now Binghamton, N.Y., and Nanticoke or Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

The remaining tribe members approached the situation from a perspective the colonists couldn’t refuse: business. They purchased their own land on the Indian River in Delaware and thereby came into a better relationship with the European-based government. The tribe was recognized as a legal entity in 1881, and the Nanticoke Indian Association formed in 1921.

The Nanticoke language was related to the Lenape dialect and part of the Algonquian family, which stretched from North Carolina to Canada, said Street. However, the last native speaker passed away in the mid-1800s.

During segregation in the mid-1900s, the current Nanticoke Indian Museum on Route 24 north of Millsboro was a two-room school for grades 1 to 8. American Indians were not permitted in white schools and did not wish to attend black schools, so they educated their own. According to Street, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and Sen. John Williams paved the way for older children to finish their learning at a boarding school in Kansas.

“We have good relations with the State,” Street said of the tribe today, in part, he said, because of assimilation with the white peoples. “People don’t realize the East Coast tribes were the first to assimilate because we had the first contact.”

Today, approximately 550 Nanticoke people live on the Delmarva Peninsula, with perhaps an equal number in farther places. Street said it’s not entirely clear who in the Pennsylvania or New York areas descended from the Nanticoke migrants, but the tribe still owns the museum property, Nanticoke Center and 16 acres of land near Millsboro and Oak Orchard.

With a home base in Delaware, the Nanticoke Indian Association aims to preserve the existence of an aboriginal society through conservation, education and cultural awareness programs.

Today, people can experience centuries of Nanticoke heritage daily at the museum and annually at the powwow, which incorporates not only the Nanticokes but many other Native American tribes. Thousands of people from 20 to 30 different tribes and the community at large will descend on Sussex County on Sept. 8 and 9 to dance and dress as their ancestors did for hundreds of years.

“It’s educational for the public, but it’s also a reunion for our family,” said Street. “We’re sharing our culture with the public. We want them to know that we are still here. We are thriving. We haven’t gone anyplace.”

Long ago, the powwow was hosted on the riverbanks, but the Nanticokes had to stop the tradition in the mid-1900s, possibly because of World War II, said Street. Pecita Lonewolf organized the powwow’s reincarnation in 1978, with a handful of friends and colleagues in Washington, D.C.

“We were talking about not having a powwow for all those many years,” said Lonewolf. “We made arrangements to come on one weekend. It was nice. Lots of our people came. That’s when we started to learn how to dance.”

Soon, the Nanticoke Tribe adopted the powwow as an official event, and Lonewolf still sees friends from D.C.

Chosen from among all of the participants, a single male or female dancer leads every single dance — a role of honor and one that requires stamina. This year, another Nanticoke woman fills that role. A Marylander will be head male dancer.

They dress in expensive regalia — men often in leather and women in cotton — covered in ornate shells, beads, feathers and other accessories. The powwow revolved around dance, so each movement carries special significance, while drummers and singers keep the beat as 20 to 30 tribes present everything from the graceful women’s Shawl Dance to the fast men’s Fancy Dance.

“Everything is real beautiful. So colorful,” said Lonewolf, who was the very first female head dancer.

Today, all community members and visitors are encouraged to attend, shop and even dance. Some ceremonies are sacred, but the round dance is an open and inclusive dance that anyone may join, so people aren’t just sitting on the outside, looking in, said Nanticoke Chief Herman Robbins.

The Nanticoke Powwow is probably the biggest on the East Coast, with a total of 20,000 attendees in two days, said Robbins. The event helps to support Nanticoke activities and upkeep of the museum, which features inexpensive admission costs year-round.

“I like the whole thing,” Robbins said. “I like to see the dances, meet the people that come from other tribes. We talk with some of the vendors.”

Visitors can enjoy shopping with the nearly 40 tribal vendors from across the country, whose offerings include arts and crafts, clothing, jewelry, pottery and much more. Food vendors will provide Native American cuisine, including fry bread and Indian tacos, succotash and fair-style food, such as hotdogs and hamburgers, and drinks. The family-oriented event has face painting and an auction of a handmade flute.

Highway signs on Route 24 (John J. Williams Highway) between Route 1 in Rehoboth Beach and Route 113 in Millsboro will guide vehicles to the parking area/powwow site, and from there, trams will transport people to the wooded powwow grounds themselves. Handicapped-accessible transportation will be available at Mount Joy Road.

The powwow grounds open on Saturday at 10 a.m., with Grand Entry at noon and a second dance session at 4 p.m. A worship service begins events on Sunday, at 10 a.m., with Grand Entry at 1 p.m.

All-day parking includes admission, at a cost of $10 per car. Walk-in admission costs $2 for adults and $1 for children. Admission for motorcycles costs $5. Buses pay $25, plus $2 for each person on the bus.

For more information on the Nanticoke Powwow, contact Marilyn Jackson at (302) 945-3400, email or visit the Nanticoke Indian Association Web site