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History Matters: Nanticoke tribe seeks to sustain its identity

Karl Malgiero/Delaware Public Media

They’re called Delaware’s Forgotten Folks.


In the second part of a two-part History Matters - produced in conjunction with the Delaware Historical Society, we continue our in-depth look at the Nanticoke Tribe.

"My name is William Daisey. And my Native American name is Thunder Eagle. And I’m chief of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe of Delaware."

Chief Daisey was born in 1931 in Millsboro. Back then, he says, transportation was just “Model T’s” and “horse and buggies.” So the farming town in Southern Delaware where he grew up felt a million miles away from bustling Wilmington or even Dover.

"We were taught how to hunt, fish make bow and arrows, rabbit traps. We were taught which berries to pick, which fruit was edible," said Daisey.

Families back then passed on what are called lifeway traditions, curing illnesses with old remedies and using Native American ways to gather more food than just that year’s harvest. From the time he could walk, Chief Daisey was learning.

"We had to clam and fish, we learned how to catch clams with our feet," said Daisey. "The water wasn’t polluted then, so you felt the clam on the bottom, you reached down and picked it up, and how to spear fish, how to shoot them with bow and arrow.

All the Nanticoke families were close. They lived near the Indian Mission Church and an Indian schoolhouse.

Like in any small community, the Chief couldn’t even look at a girl without some auntie noticing. Gossip was a constant.

"Sometimes it’s like a little Peyton Place," Daisey said with a laugh. "Everyone knew what everyone else was doing, who had what and who was going with who, and how long they’d been going together. They knew. We didn’t use the drum, but communication was very effective."

And of course, once a year they did gather around a drum for their pow wow on the Chief Clark’s land.

"Powwow’s like a homecoming. You met relatives you hadn’t seen in quite a while, cause they come from all over the country and they were scattered, now," said Daisey.  "Of course kids had a ball, ‘cause we were running around everywhere, eating all we could eat, playing with each other.

Before the Chief was born, in the 1920s, the Nanticoke powwow’s were big events. Sometimes state dignitaries made an appearance to celebrate. Anthropology students came to take notes. Newspapers from Wilmington, Philadelphia and Baltimore sent photographers. They wrote sensationalist headlines, like “INDIANS IN NATIVE GARB ENTERTAIN AT POW WOW" and "DELAWARE REDSKINS REVIVE OLD TRIBAL CUSTOMS FOR THANKSGIVING CELEBRATION."

'"I can remember seeing an article in the Philadelphia paper, back in the 1920s that said something about “wild Indians come together to celebrate” and you know, that just irked me."' said Sterling Street, a tribal elder.

Street says those depictions in the newspaper didn’t just annoy, they shamed people in the tribe. They weren’t wild, they were farmers and Christians and members of the community. So when Chief Daisey was little, the powwow’s he went to were held in secret. No outsiders were allowed in.

Leaving the protective nest of the tribe could be scary. Life on the outside was complicated. Nanticoke elders made sure kids had their own schools years earlier. But that didn’t protect them from other children.

"And sometimes if we were walking to school, the kids who were on the white school bus would taunt us. They would tease us. You know how kids are. Sometimes they’d be really mean. They’d stick their tongue out. And laughed and waved," Daisey said.  "They said things like half-breed, you know, which really hurt, you know."

Elder Sterling Street says it was the same way at the local movie theater.

"The blacks and the Indians had to sit upstairs. And if you could pass for white, they would do that, and they would sit downstairs," said Street.

The discrimination wasn’t consistent from person to person because Nanticoke people all look different. In Chief Daisey’s home in Dover, the walls are filled with graduation photos, wedding portraits and pictures of family reunions. Some of the faces in the frames look white, or black, mixed race or Native American.

And while people in Millsboro got it a little more - like they knew that if you had a certain last name, you were an Indian and you went to underground powwows, Daisey says the state of Delaware was still denying his Indian heritage.

The state of Delaware wanted to classify all Native Americans as black," said Daisey. "We have a census every ten years, and they instructed the census taker to do not put Native American on any census report. Put anything else except Native American. Mulatto was a favorite term they used. Colored, negro, mulatto, in some cases white depending on how light you were."

And outside of their little town, Nanticoke people were treated just as black people were in the Jim Crow South.

"We knew as kids we were not allowed to go on the rides down at Rehoboth," said Daisey

Historian Gabi Tayac from the National Museum of the American Indian says Nanticoke people were classified as black by default.

"So if you’re at the amusement park, and you are a brown-skinned person, and Indians are not supposed to exist, then you’re not in the category of white, it’s, you have to fall into one thing or the other," said Tayac.

In the 1960s, Chief Daisey moved to Oakland, California with his wife and their kids. There they discovered the American Indian Movement and black power. Tayac says this was a moment when Native people from the Eastern Seaboard could regain some of their old ways from Western tribes like the Ojibwe and Lakota who had made contact later.

"It was about going out to visit, and people from the West coming here. It really awakened people here," said Tayac.

At the time, people from Western Tribes heard stories of Wounded Knee from their grandparents and had been born in teepees. They were able to pass on their knowledge to Nanticoke people.

At the same time, the United States was changing. In 1964, the schools in Southern Delaware formally desegregated, although ten years after schools in the rest of the US .

Chief Daisey says that’s when Nanticoke people started holding their powwows in public again. And this time, anyone could come.

Last fall’s Nanticoke powwow drew over 30,000 people.

"I think what’s important to focus on is how miraculously beautiful it is. How strong they’ve been, and how persistent they’ve been over centuries and centuries to keep that tribal identity," said Tayac.

Chief Daisey says he never could have imagined how much things would change back when he was a kid, and his parents told him never to expect to get a good job. Back when we had to tell his little kids why they couldn’t swim on the white beach at Rehoboth. In those days, he didn’t buy his civics teacher’s lessons about equality and the constitution.

"I think this country is moving towards fulfilling its promise as far as that is concerned. I had no idea that I would ever see a black president," said Daisey. "It’s restored my faith in this country." 

Special thanks to Katie Davis for providing guidance on this piece.

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