- On Air Program Guide
- A Blue View
- Brain Talk
- Cellar Notes
- Choral Arts Classics
- The Environment in Focus
- Gil Sandler’s Baltimore Stories
- Humanities Connection
- Maryland Morning with Sheilah Kast
- Midday with Dan Rodricks
- The Morning Economic Report
- Radio Kitchen
- The Signal
- Take Five
- Your Maryland
- Public Commentary
- War of 1812 Stories
State's Native American Ossuaries Face Natural, Man-Made Threats
You are missing some Flash content that should appear here! Perhaps your browser cannot display it, or maybe it did not initialize correctly.
November 2, 2011
The place that Maryland’s Piscataway Indians call Holy Land is in southern Prince George’s County, what’s now called the Accokeek Creek Site.
“From the Piscataway Creek where it flows into the Potomac River. And that’s where the burial grounds are located because you have the power of those two bodies of water – converging.”
Gabrielle Tayac is a historian at the Smithsonian Institute, a Harvard -trained sociologist, and…a member of the Piscataway Indian Nation, one of Maryland’s
indigenous American Indian groups. Her grandfather is commonly understood to
be the last medicine man in Maryland.
“My grandfather was Chief Turkey Tayac, he was a traditional leader of the Piscatawy people he was also what they called an herb doctor, or a root doctor, medicine man who always smelled of the roots and herbs he worked with, the plant oils, the eel skins, the things that were coming from nature.”
Gabrielle Tayac remembers her “Grampa Turkey,” as she calls him, and the love
he had for the Accokeek Creek. It’s at this spot of land, holy land, she tells me,
where to gaze upon the land is to see her family, one by one.
“Rivers are veins of mother earth that surround ancestors, certain kinds of trees are communications, different kinds of animals are extended family members.”
“My name is Billy Red Wing Tayac and I’m the hereditary chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation. Chief Turkey was my father. I’m Beaver Clan, that who I am.”
Billy Red Wing Tayac is Gabrielle’s uncle. He wears a gray braid down his back.
He speaks and walks slowly with the patient pace of a 75 year old man.
He’s taken me through a farm, down a dirt road and tells me to take a left at the oak tree.
There are hundreds of trees surrounding this field which sits at the edge of the Piscataway Creek and the Potomac.
These trees stand as if witnesses when Tayac starts to speak. .
“This is native sacred land. What makes it sacred – our people lived here for thousands of years our people are buried in this earth here. When you pick up a handful of earth here you pick up two or three people’s lives – they are inter-mingled with the earth, they are the earth.”
Chief Red Wing Tayac bends down and brushes the tall grass with his hands.
“Here is my father’s grave.”
We’re standing under a red cedar tree, one that Chief Turkey planted himself.
Hanging from the branches are hundreds of tiny burlap sacks, some have names written on their ribbons, and some are tied together, cascading down the tree, towards the earth.
These are prayer ties, Billy explains, and part of the modern adaptation of a tradition his people practiced hundreds of years ago.
“It’s called Feast of the Dead. What happened was when a person died, they were taken out to the woods put up on a scaffold and they stayed on the scaffold for five or 10 years. It was called a collecting of the bones – any lingering flesh after five years had to be removed from the bones – a medicine man or a vulture man – would go and remove the remaining flesh on the bones.”
People would collect the bones and lay them in the fetal position in a pit in the ground.
Burying the bones together was a way for the community to make the journey to the spirit world together.
Billy and Gabrielle stress that you’re part of the earth when you’re alive and you’re part of the earth when you’re dead.
The Accokeek Site is the largest of the three dozen known ossuaries – or mass graves -- in Maryland.
Gabrielle points out ancestor protection is central to Piscataways and other native peoples in the state.
“What is your responsibility to your ancestors and how do you take care of them as they take care of you? They have to be in the land and they have to be in a preserved state in order for the practice to work at all.”
In the 1930s, amateur archaeologists dug up some of this ossuary to examine the remains.
Many ended up at the Maryland Historical Trust and the majority of those are still there today.
And that has caused friction between Native Americans and the state.
“Archaeologists and Native Americans have not always been buddy-buddy. I can understand why. They were dug up in the 30s out of curiousity.”
Dennis Curry is an archaeologist and the author of a book entitled, Feast of the Dead.
He says amateur collectors and archaeologists are no longer the primary reason ossuaries are endangered.
He says natural occurrences like erosion and construction are the most common reasons they are disturbed today.
And those causes are not likely to end anytime soon.
That was the case for the most recently found ossuary in Maryland.
“The Harbor Point ossuary in Salisbury four or five years ago – a fellow was digging a foundation for a house and cut through this ossuary and the police got called and did their investigation –Once they figured out it was not a modern day crime scene, they called our office and we went over and sure enough it was a prehistoric ossuary.”
Archaeologists and American Indians worked together to get the site properly excavated.
Eventually, the bones were rebagged and given back to the Indians. But the issue is more complicated than it would appear.
In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA was passed.
It helps federally-recognized American Indian tribes receive the remains of their ancestors when they surface.
But the Piscataway and other native people in Maryland are not federally recognized tribes.
In 1960s, Chief Turkey Tayac and his son, Billy fought to have the Accokeek Creek site protected by making it a part of the Piscataway National Park, in order to protect their burial grounds.
In other areas of the state though, Indian burial grounds are still in danger.
Charlie Hall is a state archaeologist for the Maryland Historical Trust.
“The law states that the state’s medical examiner and state police are contacted whenever human remains are identified in the field accidentally.”
But that doesn’t always happen. John Seidel is a professor of Anthropology at Washington College.
“I’ve talked to folks in the construction industry who have sometimes seen instances where they’ve come across human remains and in the fear that state and federal authorities will slow you down – and bring in archaeologists – you just ignore it and move the dirt as soon as possible and get rid of any evidence that any people were there.”
Many say they don’t know who to call when remains are unearthed.
Some people call the Maryland Historical Trust, but laws say the Trust can only return them to federally or state recognized tribes.
Maryland is one of the last states in the eastern United States to not have recognized one American Indian group.
“For the ancestors – the human remains that were excavated out of the of the ground - we can’t get those back without recognition. We have no standing.”
And so for many American Indians living in Maryland, the legal right to their ancestors’ human remains is still not theirs.
I’m Mary Rose Madden, reporting in Southern Maryland for 88.1 WYPR.
This afternoon during All Things Considered, we’ll explores the issue of American Indian tribes receiving state recognition in Maryland. Check out wypr.org to hear Gabrielle Tayac tell the story of how they were able to bury Chief Turkey Tayac at the Accokeek Site through an act of Congress.
This project was made possible by a grant from the Maryland Humanities Council, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this program do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Maryland Humanities Council.
IN FOCUS TODAY
Friday, May 17, 2013 - 4:41am
More than 17,000 Baltimore students miss 20 or more days of school a year. Many of these...
Friday, May 17, 2013 - 4:37am
WYPR's Fraser Smith and Karen Hosler talk about changes to the horse racing industry in Maryland...
Thursday, May 16, 2013 - 7:00am
Attorney General Doug Gansler may run for governor in 2014, but he's moving toward a decision...