The themes of Journey One related to history, people, and a sense of place. Throughout the trip, we met with a variety of professionals whose livelihoods depend on the Chesapeake Bay. Some of these people included Native Americans, colonial interpreters, archeologists, and historians. Each of them had a unique perspective on the Chesapeake. I found that different groups of people connect with their landscape in distinctive ways. More importantly, I learned how cultural materialism helps us gain insights and a better understanding of the lifestyles and societies of the past. Culture is learned behavior that has no genetic basis. For these reasons, it is hard to explain human beliefs and why they change overtime. Regardless, meeting and speaking with a diverse cast of individuals benefited me because it gave me a more complex understanding of the Chesapeake and its history, and revealed common patterns.
The Native American perspective influenced me the most. Prior to The Chesapeake Semester, I had never studied America’s oldest inhabitants. I did not realize there was regional variation among tribes and how well adapted to the environment these groups were. I found this particular perspective most helpful because it was so closely interrelated with the natural environment. After all, Indians were the first watermen in the Chesapeake. They harvested oysters and speared fish. They were also the first to forage and farm the Chesapeake region. Culturally, these groups had a respect for their natural surroundings and a spiritual relationship with the environment. It seems to me they understood the concept of “changelessness” that Tom Horton writes about in Bay Country. He writes, “Changelessness, or a least the diligent pursuit of it, is a good. Many environmentalists and ecologists feel that precisely because it is so hard to know what is natural, we should, in any decision affecting the environment, consider how first not to change the existing order.” (Horton, 5). Unlike their European counterparts, Native Americans were not striving for bigger, better, or faster ways of living, and this was reflected by their deep respect for nature.
I was able to experience the Native American lifestyle firsthand when the group went camping at Chino Farms. Foraging for meals is not an easy task. It requires cooperation and intense knowledge of the land. Fortunately, we had our professors and books to guide us. Otherwise we may have starved. The work was divided and shared equally. We ate cattails, autumn olive, sumac berries, sheep sorrel, sassafras root, persimmons, wild rice, crickets, clams, silversides, venison, and bison. It was a feast. Although the Indians ate similar things, they did not eat in abundance. In the words of Thomas Harriet, a colonist of the first Virginia settlement at Roanoke Island, …”the Indians were very sober in their eating and drinking and subsequently very long lived because they did not oppress nature” (Wennersten, 13). Unfortunately, English settlers did not understand this ethic. For them, “Nature was something to be bought, sold, traded, and developed…” (Wennersten, 13). And as history demonstrates, this was the mindset that prevailed and continues to be seen today.
In Williamsburg, we met with two modern-day Indians. One was Cherokee and one was a local Pamunkey. It was fascinating to hear their views on tradition, public misconceptions, and the future. Even though Warren and Cody belong to different tribes, they share commonalities and deal with the same types of problems. For example, both of their tribes feel oppressed by the Fish and Wildlife commission, who set limitations on their harvests. In the case of the Pomunkey Indians, they have seen their annual shad harvest decline in the past years. The building of canals and dams disrupts migration patterns. Additionally, overfishing and pollution have caused shad numbers to decline . Both men addressed issues such as poverty, alcoholism, inadequate health care, and the decline of native languages within their respective reservations. It seems to be a trend that younger generations are losing their connection to the their ancestry. Despite all these difficulties, “protecting land and resources is an important concern of the tribes, including the preservation of sacred sites” (We Have A Story to Tell, 13).
The Native American perspective provides us with a better and more complex understanding of the Chesapeake. Although their populations have dramatically decreased, their influence and legacy remains essential to the Chesapeake Bay. Their ability to adapt to changing circumstances continues to be just as critical today as it was centuries ago. For example, Native Americans sell crafts such as baskets and pottery, which still honors their relationship to the land. While author Shepard Krech III in his book, The Ecological Indian, points out that viewing Native Americans as leaving no trace on the environment “demeans” them as a people, he also states that “he (the Indian) does not waste or despoil, exhaust or extinguish, and that he does, with deliberation, leave the environment and resources like the animal population in a usable state for succeeding generations.” (Krech III, 26). Looking at the Chesapeake through eyes of Native Americans can help us preserve the estuary and enable us to continue to benefit from its ecological services.
Although it might not be obvious, the impact of Native Americans surrounds the Chesapeake today. Residents harvest oysters, eat crabs and fish, and grow corn, beans, pumpkins and squash. Hunting is popular on the Eastern Shore, as well as canoeing, kayaking and enjoying the beauty of the water. Despite recent advancements in technology and decades of damage to the environment in the Chesapeake region, the lessons of the past can be used today to make sure the Chesapeake remains a vital part of our culture and society.
Krech, Shepard. “Introduction.” Ecological Indian: Myth and History, Norton, 2001, pp. 1-26.
Horton, Tom. “What Is Natural, What Is Right.” Bay Country, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, pp. 1–17.
Tayac, Gabrielle, and Edwin Schupman. “We Have A Story To Tell.” Edited by Mark Hirsch Http://Www.learnnc.org/Lp/Editions/Native-Chesapeake/, National Museum Of The American Indian, 2006, nmai.si.edu/sites/1/files/pdf/education/chesapeake.pdf.
Wennersten, John R. “The New World Environment of Chesapeake Bay.” The Chesapeake, Maryland Historical Society, 2001, pp. 1–38.