Understanding the bay region’s indigenous heritage

Many years ago, the Pocomoke, Wicomico, Nanticoke, Manokin and many other almost-forgotten Native American tribes roamed the Chesapeake Bay Peninsula. Because of the geographic landscape and topography of this area, these tribes were people who lived on the water and hunted waterfowl. Particularly, these tribes hunted the riverways now-named the Pocomoke, Nanticoke, Choptank and Wicomico.

Species of wildfowl such as Canvasback, Canada Goose, Mallard, and Bufflehead have lived on the Eastern Shore and migrated through this region for generations. Luring a wild animal into killing range of a spear, bow, or net was just as challenging then as it is today.

These local hunters developed the invention of the wildfowl decoy, made out of reeds or other wild grasses, which would float on the surface of the water and draw birds within range. One fascinating aspect of this genius invention is that there have been very few significant improvements upon the design of wildfowl decoys since that time.

On the morning of May 2, I was tasked with the responsibility as a young reporter for the Lower Eastern Shore Heritage Council. This event was the 18th annual lunch banquet for LESHC, which is an organization focused on “preserving, protecting and promoting the cultural, natural, and historical heritage of Somerset, Worcester and Wicomico counties.”

The keynote speaker at the 2018 LESHC banquet was world-renowned wildfowl decoy carver, Rich Smoker, who has carved and painted over 4,000 birds in his lifetime, a number that continues to grow today.

One of my favorite moments was when he shared this quote of Louis Nizer during his presentation: “A man who works with his hands is a laborer. A man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman. A man who works with his hands, brain, and heart is an artist.”

It is obvious that Mr. Smoker takes great pride in his elegant carving work, and that he is passionate about his desire to teach future generations about the history of wildfowl decoys. Until I listened to Mr. Smoker’s presentation, I had given very little thought to the long history of the wildfowl decoy and its connection to the indigenous tribes of the Eastern Shore.

Although, Mr. Smoker, didn’t mention Native American tribes explicitly in his speech at the LESHC banquet, the heritage of wildfowl decoys is something that is recognized in the display of his decoys at Salisbury’s Ward Museum.

Mr. Smoker’s work is a good reminder of the way in which an ancient invention and the existence of native cultures still impacts our Chesapeake Bay region today.

When asked about the one thing that kids like me should know about the history and heritage of the Eastern Shore, Lee Whaley, a LESHC board member and local philanthropist, said, “The Eastern Shore has many wonderful things in terms of natural and historical resources, but I would love for people to know about the rivers and the bay, because what we have here is incomparable to any place around the country.” Similarly, Creston Long of the Salisbury University Nabb Research Center said, “The Eastern Shore has a rich and diverse history, with people from all different backgrounds, and that history is still unfolding today.”

I agree with these sentiments; part of the history we should preserve is how and where the Native American tribes made a home on this land. I am a member of the Choctaw Nation that survived the Trail of Tears, so I am naturally drawn to the narrative of the indigenous tribes of the Chesapeake Bay region. That story is currently memorialized by the Wicomico County seal that depicts a Native American male with two feathers in his hair and a grimace on his face. This caricature of an “Indian” may be recognizable, but it definitely does not capture the reality of the rich indigenous heritage in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Recently, Salisbury University students in the Honors College spent an entire semester researching the heritage of the Wicomico, Nanticoke, Manokin and Pocomoke tribes who once lived and moved upon the lands that many people have since built their homes and business upon  here on the Eastern Shore. As a result of their research, a display called “You’re on Indian Land…” was placed inside the first level of the Guerrieri Academic Commons that included information that they discovered during their research.

The exhibit features a Cattail Canvasback decoy made mainly out of parts of a cattail plant which was designed by one of the few remaining members of the Pocomoke tribe, Buddy Howard.

LESHC does a great job of preserving, protecting, and promoting the history that surrounds our Eastern Shore. Thank you LESHC, for all you do for our community. I would like to encourage you to visit lowershoreheritage.org to learn more about LESHC events and projects.

There are stories that we should never forget. The Native American tribes who lived on the Eastern Shore are more than the names of our riverways. The next time you have to stop for a family of geese walking across a street or see a Flying V formation piercing through the clouds, I hope you will consider the people that lived here thousands of years ago, that pondered the same things you do.

Ryland Weaver lives in Salisbury.


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