Indigenous Tribes of Washington, DC
The United States capital is surrounded by just over a dozen tribal nations that thrive along the Anacostia and Potomac River watersheds and in the Chesapeake Bay area and the states of Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Washington, DC, sits on the ancestral lands of the Nacotchtank (or Anacostans), and neighbors the ancestral lands of the Piscataway and Pamunkey peoples.
The District of Columbia shares borders with Maryland and Virginia, and connects with lands along the Anacostia and Potomac Rivers. These river systems and current national parks are where the Piscataway, Pamunkey, the Nentego (Nanichoke), Mattaponi, Chickahominy, Monacan, and the Powhatan cultures thrived. According to the National Park Service, the region “was rich in natural resources and supported the local native people.” Forty years after the arrival of the Europeans, only a quarter of the original occupants remained.
Recognition in the 21st Century
The original people experienced the ravages brought on by the settler-colonial introduction of diseases, encroachment and forced removal, and erasure of traditional and cultural survival of the tribes. Today, the indigenous people who reside in the Washington, DC, area continue to present their case for recognition for descendant communities. These citizens fight for their nations, hoping to restore or receive a government-to-government relationship with the US. In Maryland, the Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway Conoy Tribe received state recognition in January 2012. In Virginia, 11 tribes have received state recognition and 7 tribes have received federal recognition. The Pamunkey received federal recognition in January 2015 through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior. The Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, and Rappahannock tribes received recognition in January 2018 through the Thomasina E. Jordan Indian Tribes of Virginia Federal Recognition Act of 2017.
Today, roughly 4,000 indigenous people live and thrive in present-day Washington, DC. In efforts to teach locals about their history and culture, communities like the Rappahannock tribe host annual celebrations in the national parks. Members of the state-recognized tribe perform traditional songs and dances while sharing their community’s culture and significance of the natural resources. Nonetheless, we are on the ancestral lands of many tribes and we can still get a glimpse into the traditional ways of the first peoples. Visitors can find exhibitions in the museums and historical reminders of the tribes in the parks that make the capital an annual destination.
You can visit the websites below to learn more about the tribes that thrive in Washington, DC, and the neighboring states that have recognized tribal nations.
- Piscataway Conoy Tribe
- Piscataway Conoy Creations
- Pamunkey Indian Tribe
- Nentego (Nanichoke)
- The Confederation of Sovereign Nanticoke-Lenape Tribes
- Chickahominy Indian Tribe
- Monacan Indian Nation
- Virginia State Recognized Tribes
- Federal and State Recognized Tribes
- DC Native History Project
National Park Service and historical articles:
- Powhatan cultures
- Native Peoples of Washington, DC
- American Indian Tribes Today
- Library of Congress — Native Histories of Washington, DC
- Washington Post — A Native American Tribe Once Called DC Home; It’s Had No Living Members for Centuries
- American Indians of Washington, DC, and the Chesapeake
- American Indian Heritage Day, October 6, 2018
When in Washington, DC, visit the following centers or websites to plan your visit. Learn more about the area’s historical and current indigenous populations:
- National Museum of the American Indian
- Center for Native American Youth
- Bureau of Indian Education
- The National Park Service — Washington, DC
Thank you to the American Library Association for providing much of this text and the resource links.