November is Native American Heritage Month and as we honor the multitude of stories, traditions and histories of Indigenous Americans, we share a special appreciation for the Nacotchtank, Piscataway, and Pamunkey tribes. The first inhabitants of the D.C. area, the Nacotchtank lived nestled between the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers, closely neighbored by the Piscataway and Pamunkey, and their lifeways were a reflection of the abundance of the place they called home. Re-named by the invading European colonists, the Nacotchtank became known by the anglicized name “Anacostine” and were soon pushed out of their land fleeing to what is present-day Roosevelt Island. A mere 40 years after their first encounter with the foreign immigrants, the native population had declined to that of only a quarter of what they once were.
The rich and complicated history of the tribes who called our city home long before our nation’s capital existed, is preserved throughout our city in both big and small ways. One way is through the artifacts and stories uncovered during the city’s growth and redevelopment. A dedicated team at the Historic Preservation Office works tirelessly to assess each and every building project of public historic properties for their archaeological potential. Artifacts recovered in the District undergo a thorough preservation process so they can be available for research and shared with D.C. residents. However, the Historic Preservation Office didn’t have its own facility to house these artifacts for many years, requiring them to store the items outside of D.C.
In 2016, many of these items were finally able to come home when the DC Public Library kicked off the renovation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. The Library worked with the Historic Preservation Office on a variety of archaeological mitigation efforts related to plans to add additional floors to D.C.’s central library. Not only would the additional space allow the Library to offer more programming, exhibit space and resources for the community, but the Historic Preservation Office would have a designated space within the newly designed People’s Archive to act as D.C.’s first Archaeological Curation Facility. Today, the repository at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library serves as a home within the city for the guardianship of the many historical objects found here. Items such as a comb carved from an antler, textiles woven of fiber from papaw, wooden beads and pottery shards - once displaced, now remain in the city. It is these fragments of the past that help us tell a more fulsome story of those that have come before us.
While the Archaeological Curation Facility is not open to the public you can learn more about the artifacts held there from the Piscataway peoples with a special Native American Heritage Month podcast episode and video with Chief Jesse James Swann, Jr., Piscataway Tribe; Ruth Trocolli, D.C. Archaeologist, D.C. Office of Planning-Historic Preservation Office; and Armand Lione, Local Historian.
Then we encourage you to explore the Library’s Native American Heritage Month page to find resources that will help you learn about the complex history of indigenous peoples in the United States. You’ll be in good company - according to D.C. Archaeologist Dr. Ruth Trocolli, her team utilizes their library cards just like everyone else in the city, “We rely on the digital resources the Library offers to bolster our own work!”
Image 1: Two fragments of ancient pottery from the DC Historic Preservation Office's artifact collection.
Credit: Maurice Moore
Image 2: Archeologist Christine Ames and intern Christian Estrada help move artifacts to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library.
Credit: D.C. Historic Preservation Office
Listen to the Podcast
For Native American Heritage Month, we discuss the archaeological artifacts archived at the MLK Library with State Archaeologist Ruth Tricolli, Chief Jesse James Swann of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, and Armand Lione of the DC Native History Project. We reveal what these artifacts tell us about the Indigenous peoples who made a home and livelihood in D.C. for thousands of years. We’ll also connect the neighborhoods of Washington D.C., their roots to Native American History and Culture, and the need for increased education of Native Americans in the District.