On Wednesday, Nov. 7 in St. Mary’s Hall, the Piscataway Nation visited SMCM as a part of National Native American Heritage Month. The cultural event, which included traditional dances and songs that have been performed for thousands of years, was hosted by Mark Tayac, the son of the current chief of the Piscataway Nation. The performing group included only four of the 20 Native American performers who have traveled all over the world for 30 years of cultural celebration.
The Piscataway are an Indian nation indigenous to Maryland, but their original territory once spread into Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio Valley. This territory was defined by how far their native language, now called Eastern Woodland Algonquin Dialect, was spoken. Mark Tayac, the future 29th generation hereditary chief of the Piscataway Nation, said that Maryland “has been our home and is our home today.” The Piscataway presence in this area has been estimated by anthropologists to 15,000 years of occupation.
The purpose of the event is to “share the beauty of native traditions, dances, and songs, and to celebrate who we were yesterday and are today,” said Tayac. “[The media] has not always portrayed Native American people and culture in a positive or accurate way.” He then took a visual poll, asking audience members to raise their hands if they had heard the stereotypical drum beat associated with Native Americans. To the nation, as long as the drum continues, the beauty of the Piscataway culture continues. “The drum represents the heartbeat of life…if you’re heart sounds like that, you need to pick up a phone and call 911 because you need a doctor,” said Tayac with a laugh.
Many of the dances from the event have been performed at pow-wows, or a gathering of Native American people, for thousands of years and are evidence that there is still a living culture that is kept alive by the Piscataway. The group danced the “grand entry dance” that shows “the grand beauty of our people and culture,” according to Tayac. One of the favorite dances of the night was the war dance, which represents the old days and old ways of preparing for battle. Disputes were usually settled through a game called stick ball, which has now become lacrosse.
The dancers picked people out of the audience to stand in a circle on the stage to participate in “counting coup.”
“Don’t worry, you don’t have to dance,” said Tayac, “but you must be brave.” One of the dancers performed the dance in the center, which involved touching the dancer’s opponent to show his courage. After scaring several people in the circle, Tayac picked out one girl from the circle and joked, “Young lady, do you know what you’re getting yourself into? Well, I don’t either so you must be brave!” She had to prove her own bravery by dancing up to the original dancer and touching him, a method of war developed by Native Americans because they believed that they didn’t have the right to take another’s spirit.
The other performances of the evening included the Men’s Grass Dance, which demonstrates harmony and balance; the Crow Dance; the Men’s Fancy War Dance; the Eagle Dance, which is a four part dance that shows a eagle’s journey through life; the Hoop Dance, which is a technically difficult dance and involved six hoops that the dancer used to create images; and the Rabbit Dance. The Rabbit Dance, two-step, or Sweetheart’s Dance is a partner dance that is accompanied by love songs. The dancers picked volunteers and danced with them in a simple dance which was similar to following the leader. “If anyone falls in love, it’s not my fault,” said Tayac.
The culture and traditions of the Piscataway people are very much alive today. Tayac said, “We are the original people of the land and we are still here today.” The Native American people, he explained, have a special connection to the land and have a long-lasting oral tradition that continues to celebrate the Piscataway way of life. The dancers ended the evening with closing dance of the pow-wow and were available for pictures and questions afterward.
The event was very popular with the audience, and many stayed to talk to the tribesmen and buy the handmade goods that were for sale. Sarah Duff, a sophomore who attended, said, “It was great. it was cool to see traditions come alive at St. Mary’s.” The Piscataway Nation recently became a state-recognized tribe in January of this year, according to a press release on Governor O’Malley’s website.