Monday is Indigenous Peoples’ Day in the District after the city council approved emergency legislation last week to rename Columbus Day.
While the change from the federally recognized “Columbus Day” has not been made permanent as of yet, it is still a good time to learn more about the people who called this area home long before European settlers arrived in North America.
So, who are the region’s indigenous people?
The Piscataway people lived along the Potomac River from the Chesapeake Bay to western Maryland in lodges made of trees covered in mats made of reeds or animal hides. Extended families of around eight or nine individuals shared lodges.
“The houses were clumped together in what we call a ‘palisaded village,’ in other words it was a village of houses with a tall fence around it,” said Professor Richard Dent, an anthropologist from American University and author of the book “Chesapeake Prehistory: Old Traditions, New Directions.”
The fence provided security from wild animals and competing tribes.
“They were concerned about neighboring tribes — particularly the Iroquoian groups that were well to the north that were coming down and beating up on the Piscataway, so to speak,” Dent said.
They also came under occasional attack from fellow Algonquian-speaking Powhatans who lived to the south.
They fished for sturgeon in the Potomac, hunted white tailed deer with bow and arrow and farmed.
“They did incorporate corn, beans and squash agriculture into the natural subsistence base, plants that were domesticated in Mexico and had — by various ways — filtered their way up to the region,” Dent said.
Piscataway also devoured oysters, mussels and crabs and left behind huge heaps of shells, known as “middens.”
“There are some shell middens along the Potomac at Pope’s Creek (Charles County). The shells, remains of the oysters they caught cover 69 acres and are 60 to 80 feet deep,” Dent said.
In Dent’s field investigations, he’s excavated some 10 Piscataway villages from Accokeek to Frederick, Maryland.
Piscataway lived in the region 500 years ago.
“We’re not sure exactly how far back, but probably at least a couple of thousand years,” Dent said.
Artifacts of the indigenous people have been found throughout the region, including arrowheads, spear points, stone scrapers and shards of pottery.
Alexandria has already renamed Columbus Day in favor of Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Prince George’s County has voted to officially change the name of the holiday to Native American Day beginning in October 2020.
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