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Chesapeake Insider

Mario Harley

 

A Note About COVID-19 and Visiting Parks Help stop the spread of COVID-19 and follow all current directives from your governor and local health officials about wearing face masks and physical distancing.

Exploring the Indigenous Communities of the Chesapeake:

The Piscataway Conoy Tribe

The Piscataway Conoy Tribe originated in Maryland and the Chesapeake Bay region. Piscataway means, “The people where the rivers blend.” Conoy is synonymous with the word Piscataway. Conoy is the name that the Haudenosaunee called the Piscataways. The tribe has about 3,000 enrolled tribal citizens. Many residents reside in southern Maryland counties and are located in the southern Maryland region. The Piscataway Conoy Tribe has representatives serving on the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, which is composed of nine members appointed by the governor of Maryland and confirmed by the State Senate. A majority of these nine members must be American Indian residents of Maryland, and at least three members must be from American Indian groups indigenous to Maryland. 

Mario Harley is a Piscataway Indian citizen and previous vice chair of the Piscataway Conoy tribal council. Mario also is a member of the Wild Turkey Clan. He graduated with a BS in Business Administration from American University. Mario along with his wife and two sons live in Waldorf, Maryland. Mario currently works as a senior civilian for the U.S. Department of the Navy. Mario continues to play an active role in the renewal of the Piscataway Conoy Indian community. 

“It is part of an existence when you are actively participating and living your culture.” -Mario Harley, Piscataway Indian citizen 

Mario creates traditional Native art and artisanship. He uses a variety of natural materials from the environment to create intricate handcrafted Native art, including leather, deer skins, feathers, porcupine quills, birch bark, sweet grass, gourds, beadwork and shells--just to name a few. 

This fan was made out of the tail feathers of a wild turkey. The fan handle is beaded using a stitch known as a “peyote stitch,” which wraps around the entire handle.

 

What kinds of items do you make with beads, and what kind of materials do you use? Would you consider your art more decorative than utilitarian? 

When we start with our youth, we start them in using beadwork in Native art at an elementary level. We use a tightly constrained stitch that helps them focus-- helps them think through what they are trying to accomplish. They are learning life lessons in the way they are doing their initial stitching in the basic beadwork. But, as you grow, you expand, just like in life. You expand into doing leather work, tanning deer skins, working with feather work, working with porcupine quills, birch bark, sweet grass, gourds, shells, etc. There are a variety of items in our natural environment that we utilize and try to incorporate into our artwork that actually tells stories-- part of our history, part of our culture.

I like to view my artwork as something that the Native person wants. When I am making my artwork, I am thinking of that traditional dancer that I’ve seen in powwows in New York. I’m thinking of that fancy dancer I’ve seen in North Carolina, the jingle-dress dancer that I’ve seen in New Jersey-- other dancers, Natives who lived the culture, and experienced the culture. How they would see what I am doing as something they would appreciate and desire. 

Modern-day purse, worn by a traditional female dancer. The white pouch is made from brain-tanned deerskin. A porcupine quill centerpiece, made up of dyed and natural porcupine quills--in the design of a bald eagle in flight in front of the sun--is prominently displayed. The purse’s fringe consists of beads, bone, and shells. Ribbons and beaded drops are used to accentuate the purse.

How did you learn about making Native art and what inspired you to get started in craftsmanship? 

In the earlier days, I had cousins who shared with me what they knew. My family and I would go to their homes and they would show me various stitches. I would go back and replicate it. From one family member to another family member, they would share their knowledge with me. I would embrace those moments and look for other individuals to help me expand my knowledge base. My cousins, uncles, and aunts, those family members--people within my clan that helped me develop those skill sets. 

Are there any specific patterns or designs that are influenced by your tribe’s history or traditions? 

Not really. The most common would be the floral designs. We look at what our environment is, we see a lot of the natural world- the flowers that are all around us in the spring and summertime. We try to incorporate some of that into our art. That gets into more of the advanced levels once you are able to put together a larger plan for what you are trying to do as opposed to the entry level, which is more basic and structured. 

Is there a process that you go through when creating your Native artwork? 

Now-a-days yes, you sort of look at things that you have done in the past and realize what you could do now to make it better-- improve it, add certain details to it. It is a lot of building off of past successes or even past failures. You know exactly what you may have done wrong. You may make it more enjoyable from your perspective. You make those modifications. It may take two or three times before you actually get it right, depending on what you are trying to accomplish. But, the idea is to have that vision of what it could be and slowly chip at it until you get to a point where you’re comfortable. 

When creating your artwork, is there something that you want people to understand or learn from your work? 

The forms that we utilize are from the environment we live in. The most recent piece that I have been doing deals with freshwater mussel shells. Freshwater mussels are similar to clams--they help filter the waters in freshwater as opposed to brackish or saltwaters. Within our homeland, we have many freshwater creeks. We are able to go out during low tide, to actually pick up the freshwater mussels--clean them, prepare them, and do carvings--and see the iridescent colors within the shell itself. Bringing that into artwork is fulfilling. Those kinds of stories that enhance and capture the environment here in Maryland and the resources here in Maryland, we are then able to capitalize on them and turn them into artwork. We can share the art with our neighboring tribes and other people, which is fulfilling. 

Another example would be utilizing bark from the river birch. These trees help cleanse the waterways. We use their bark in our artwork as well. 

This piece is a medallion made using birch bark. The face of the eagle is created with dyed and natural porcupine quills. Sweet grass is used to finish the edge of the medallion. The medallion’s fringe is decorated with bone, beads, and the natural tail hair from the white-tailed deer.

We try to connect our artwork to the natural world--the trees, the plants, the life from the waterways, the animals, the four-leggeds into our artwork. To teach them that from our perspective and original teachings--we are taught to respect and honor. In doing so, we bring them into our ceremonial circles and dance circles, and incorporate them into our artwork. 

“The Piscataway Conoy Tribe was blessed with a large volume of waterways that we utilized to both sustain ourselves and to communicate with each other, and travel within our homeland.” - Mario Harley

Artwork in tribal communities sometimes expresses stories and histories. Are there any stories you express through your Native art? 

I separate [my artwork] from living culture. Living culture is the kind of thing that tells stories that are passed down from generation to generation. We do that for instance in the arrows that we make. It starts off using some of the very earliest forms of materials--shark teeth, turkey feathers, and cattail stems. Over time through observation, intertribal information exchange, and colonial contact, we replaced the points on our arrows to utilize turkey leg spurs, deer antler, stone, glass, and copper. Information and available resources influenced our adaptation to new ideas and techniques. There is a migration of technologies being utilized for the same purpose--based upon what was available, what the original teachings were, and how we adapted to our new environments. Arrows are a classic story of showing that transition over time. 

Are there any specific colors that represent your tribal history or culture that you incorporate into your Native art? Do any colors have symbolic meaning to your tribe?

Not really. Most of the colors we are utilizing would be reflected in the colors of flowers around us when we get into that type of artwork. That is the exception and not the norm. You normally use colors that you are comfortable with. As of myself, at powwows I will watch other dancers out there--the color schemes they come up with. I then see if I can make pieces of artwork in that color scheme. It will come out really nice. I am influenced by other Native people and their color schemes. I can take it and incorporate it into artwork that I am trying to create. 

Do you get inspired by other tribes? Do you share ideas and trade designs with other tribes? 

A historical process long before the coming of the Europeans, we had long-established trade networks that allowed our people to interact with Native people to the south--as far as the Gulf of Mexico, to the west as far as the Mississippi, and to the north all the way up to the Great Lakes. There was great interchange and interactions. That knowledge and ideas will be passed along as well. Today, going out to powwows and visiting other Indian tribes, that same kind of inspiration is occurring. Indigenous designs are oftentimes exchanged amongst local and nonlocal tribes. The artistry and craftsmanship bring great diversity to the artform.  

I was aware that the Piscataway Conoy Tribe is related to the Lenni-Lenape Tribe from Delaware. Would you mind elaborating on that? 

We call them our grandfathers. Many many thousands of years ago, we departed from them as we came south, to what is now southern Maryland. Our first cousins, the Nanticoke, broke off as well and migrated south to the eastern shore. We view the Nanticoke as our first cousins across the Bay and the Lenni-Lenape or Delaware (Lenni-Lenape is their traditional name; the English gave them the name Delaware) as our grandfathers. That terminology of grandfathers for the Lenni-Lenape Tribe is pretty consistent across many other Algonquian tribes in the entire eastern seaboard as well as the Great Lakes region. 

Do you have any favorite, special sites or parks in the Chesapeake region that are important to you or your tribal community? 

There are many places--what is now known as Fort Washington, Moyaone in Accokeek, St. Ignatius, Mattawoman Creek, Port Tobacco River, Patuxent River, Mattaponi River. These are all of our traditional river waterways where I learned to swim and catch my first fish. I have memories of family picnics on the banks--those kinds of stories, the tribal locations where history was made. Where we contacted the first Europeans, where we would interact amongst ourselves as tribal people and trade. Where we came together for various ceremonies during the early 1900s and for picnics. There are a variety of locations that are important to the Piscataway Tribe throughout our traditional homelands. 

We have a semi-unique scenario: We are currently living in our traditional homelands where the Creator put us many thousands of years ago. Some tribes have been forced off their homeland and lost that direct linkage in their original spaces. We are able to go back and be at the gravesites of our ancestors that go back thousands of years. We can honor their traditions and memories. That is somewhat unique to us as opposed to the experience that many other tribes had when they were forced away from their homelands. 

The Chesapeake Bay watershed is a treasure and a great source of food from the saltwater and brackish waters. In the brackish waters you get your crabs and clams. In the freshwaters you get your wild rice, tuckahoe, and traditional plants that thrive there. Being able to understand the different gifts that are available to us during the different times of year and locations is the important part, so that we are able to continue some of those traditions. 

The Piscataway Conoy Indians are trying to educate people that the Native community is still here--we are thriving, maintaining, and enhancing our traditional artforms. 

How can we support or learn more about the Piscataway Conoy Tribe?

Coming together and putting information out from a tribal perspective onto many different websites on the internet is a good step forward. Various elements of the community can view it and begin to ask questions or reach out so that the knowledge can be enhanced. One challenge is that we don’t have a large microphone in order to tell our story. Having interviews, such as this one, are helpful in making the broader and larger society aware of what we are trying to do as a tribal community.

“From our perspective we are trying to work with the school system to influence future textbooks to provide accurate history of our people--in Maryland, D.C., and Virginia-- that they get the full story.” - Mario Harley 

For more information about the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, please visit the Piscataway Conoy Tribe’s official website

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Piscataway Park 

Piscataway Park is located in Accokeek, Maryland, and has monumental historical significance. Piscataway Park is cooperatively managed and operated by the National Park Service (U.S. Department of the Interior) and the Accokeek Foundation. It is registered as a National Register of Historic Places. Piscataway Park is known for its prominent Native American history, is located on Piscataway ancestral homelands, and is a sacred landscape to the Piscataway community. The Piscataway Conoy Tribe is not directly affiliated with the park, however, the tribe continues to visit the park in remembrance of their ancestors and to rejoice in ceremonial traditions, spiritual traditions, and celebrations.

This park has exquisite charm. You can view Mount Vernon from across the Potomac River, walk on beautiful boardwalk trails, and go fishing on the pier. Piscataway Park has a visitor center, National Colonial Farm, a fishing pier, and an ecosystem farm. National Colonial Farm is used for educational programming and as a museum. To learn more about the park, go to https://www.nps.gov/articles/piscataway.htm.

Sign entrance to Piscataway Park (left) Pumpkin Ash Trail boardwalk over freshwater tidal wetland (right) Both photos courtesy of Carly Sniffen, Chesapeake Conservancy.

**All other images in this article are courtesy of Mario Harley.

Piscataway Park

Piscataway Park is located in Prince George's County, Maryland and encompasses 5000 acres of open fields, dense forests, and wetlands along the Potomac River directly opposite Mt. Vernon, the land and home of George Washington.

Carly Sniffen

As an Interpretive Outreach Assistant, Carly hopes to share her passion for the environment with the community by working to develop and promote community engagement and working to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Hannah Dickinson

Hannah is an Oklahoma native and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, but grew up in a traveling military family. Currently pursuing a degree in Human Communicative Theory at the University of Oklahoma, she is passionate about working with ethnically diverse communities in hopes to strengthen interethnic communication. She anticipates using her skills in communication to attract more attention to tribal protection and nature conservation. Hannah’s hobbies include cooking, taking care of her house plants, spoiling her cat, and traveling with her boyfriend to national and state parks whenever they can.

October 1, 2020

Main image: Courtesy of Mario Harley
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