A reflection from Cultural Intelligence ministry member Tara Johnston who cherishes the lives and stories of her indigenous ancestors.

November is Native American Heritage Month, and while there are oceans of rich stories from the  diverse first peoples of the Americas, it’s fitting that as we seek to connect with the history of our city, we take time this month to specifically honor D.C.’s first residents. A good place to start is to research who were the native peoples of the land you now live on? Ojibwe activist Ashley Fairbanks posed these additional questions on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and I think they’re a helpful tool to engage with the full scope of our city’s history.

  • What do/did the native peoples call themselves? 
  • What was done to them? 
  • How do you benefit from that? 
  • What are they doing now?”

The immediate area around D.C. was first stewarded by the Piscataway in southern Maryland, the Nacotchtank in what is now Georgetown, and the Doeg in northern Virginia, all three of whom are part of the Eastern Algonquian language group.  As is common with colonial contact, the Nacotchtank saw their name anglicized a variety of ways, but one that should sound familiar to us, Anacostan, is where we get the word, 'Anacostia.'

Increased contact with European settlers brought deadly disease, continued loss of land, and often violent death for D.C.’s first residents.  The remaining Nacotchtank and Doeg merged with other area tribes, thus ceasing to exist as distinct people groups, and many of the Piscataway left for southern Virginia and Canada.  However, a remnant of the Piscataway remains here to this day, organized into two bands, the Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway Conoy Tribe. In fact, Gabrielle Tayac, niece of the Piscataway Indian Nation’s current tribal leader Billy Redwing Tayac, is one of the historians and curators at the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI).  She is the curator behind NMAI DC’s exhibit, "Return to a Native Place: Native Peoples of the Chesapeake Region" which is an excellent further education resource.

Since it’s Thanksgiving week, let’s move north to Massachusetts, to the lands of another Algonquian language people, the Wampanoag.  They are the “Indians” we hear about in tales of the “First Thanksgiving”, so let’s see that story through their eyes. They knew the Pilgrims were stealing their seed corn and raiding their burial sites, they had every reason to distrust these strangers, and yet, when they realized that the great gathering was celebration rather than war preparation, they cooked and hunted to supply the feast of their new neighbors.  They rejoiced with those rejoicing, they welcomed the foreigner, and they did it all despite the wrongs already suffered. The narrative of history since, coupled with the world’s logic, would call their acts naïve, but we know that in Christ we are called to display the same kind of radical hospitality. So, this week, as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, let us give thanks and honor those who have stewarded this place we call home, and let us, like the Wampanoag, be a community of great welcome and giving.

Bonus: Here is a moving video of a truth and healing exercise produced by Native Americans in Philanthropy.