Native American History

Turkey Tayac's Fight for the Piscataway People

A photograph of the Potomac river. There are two trees on either side of the image. There looks to be two men on a dock in the distance. The water is flat.

For years, Turkey Tayac fought almost singlehandedly for the rights and recognition of his Native American group, the Piscataways. In the 1950s, he found some unlikely allies and successfully fended off an effort to build high rise apartments on sacred Piscataway lands in southern Maryland. A few years later, he helped convince the National Park Service to preserve the land for posterity. It was a remarkable achievement, and Turkey Tayac's work for inclusion would continue, even after his death.

John Collier's Conference at the Cosmos Club

Madison Place in the early 1900s

By 1934, BIA Commissioner John Collier believed that land allotment and other policies meant to help Native Americans were doing more harm than good, and he wanted to reverse them through an ambitious bill known as the Indian Reorganization Act (also called the Wheeler-Howard Act). Collier’s bill would not only nullify the land allotment policy, but it would also allow Native American tribes to govern themselves, decentralize the BIA, consolidate Native land, and transfer Indigenous children from boarding schools to day schools.

Man Missing: Scarlet Crow's Fateful Visit to Washington, D.C.

Scarlet Crow's gravestone at Congressional Cemetery

On the night of February 24, 1867 in the nation’s capital, Scarlet Crow, a visiting Sioux chief, mysteriously disappeared. No one knows for sure what happened. Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate oral history proposed that he was kidnapped, while the Evening Star newspaper put forth that he had simply wandered and gotten lost. What is indisputable, however, is that after that night, Scarlet Crow was never seen alive again. 

We'wha Visits the Capital

We'wha weaving (Source: Wikipedia)

Before 1885, We’wha had never seen a city, and the city of Washington, D.C. had never seen a person quite like We’wha. Alongside being a pottery maker and cultural ambassador, We’wha was a lhamana, who in the Zuni tradition are male-bodied people who also possess female attributes. Existing outside of the Western gender binary, lhamana have always inhabited a special role in Zuni society, as intermediaries between men and women, who perform special cultural and spiritual duties. More recent scholarship coined the term Two Spirit "as a means of unifying various gender identities and expressions of Native American / First Nations / Indigenous individuals."

“Ground [the statues] into dust!” – The Downfall of Two District Memorials

The Discovery

With the recent protests in response to the murder of George Floyd and the continued unearthing of our nation’s racist history, conversation regarding what history we set in stone is back at the forefront. In the District, memorial removals are extremely rare occurrences, but that doesn’t mean they have never happened before. In the late 1950s, two of the Capitol building’s most significant monuments were removed, despite the fact that a future president himself advocated for their installment: Horatio Greenough’s The Rescue and Luigi Persico’s Discovery of America. Largely due to public pressure, the statues were taken down during the building’s remodeling in 1958 and never re-erected.

National Museum of the American Indian

Skeletons in the Closet: the Smithsonian’s Native American Remains and the NMAI

The Smithsonian museums attract millions of D.C. locals and tourists alike every year, but in the late 1980s, the Institution found its reputation at risk. As Smithsonian spokeswoman Madeline Jacobs described in October of 1989, “The calls and letters” during that period were “like a flood." "Even important topics like our divestment from South Africa didn't get this much attention,” Jacobs told The Washington Post.

What sparked the uproar? In 1989, the Smithsonian reportedly held 35,000 skeletal remains of Indigenous peoples, 18,500 of which were Native American remains.