Prayer ribbons fluttered on Eastern Shore breezes while Winterhawk cleansed his heart; a rising sun overtook darkness as the American Indian chief prepared to work in one world, hoping to preserve another.
Sewell ”Winterhawk” Fitzhugh faces east when he prays each morning, continuing the tradition of his ancestors from the Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians as his grandmother taught him. It’s precisely that culture and tradition he hopes others don’t forget.
”I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if I’m a real Indian,” Fitzhugh said. He frequently visits schools and speaks at other meetings because ”there are still lots of people who can’t believe we even exist,” he said. ”Then there I am.”
He works four 10-hour shifts at an airline toiletries plant in Easton, where he is a receiving clerk. He took that schedule to make more time for leading the Nause-Waiwash remnant of the Nanticoke tribe.
While Capt. John Smith sailed around the Chesapeake Bay, the Nause-Waiwash tribe was scattered across what is now Dorchester County.
But 400 years later, Maryland doesn’t recognize any Indian tribes, even though at least 200 to 300 people say they are Nanticoke Indians. As tribe members were looking for ways to organize in 1990, women of the Nause-Waiwash tribe selected Fitzhugh to be chief.
Tribal council member Mary Lipsius, 33, said, ”He was already working on issues. He was the backbone. He’s the reason we’re here.”
But his appearance is not that of the stereotypical Indian chief like those displayed on movie screens. Often wearing denim shirts and pants, he wears a Western-style hat and occasionally draws stares as his appearance blends the past and the present.
To help preserve the past and connect it to the present, Fitzhugh presides over birth, marriage and death ceremonies for Native people, even those from other tribes.
”It’s a way to connect,” he said. ”We are all attached, and there are moments when you feel that.”
Sometimes he is also asked to share advice about what Indians – those of his own tribe and other tribes – should do. He sometimes offers counsel for landlord problems and fights for Indian remains to be returned to Natives from a Calvert County museum.
Having to fight because they are Native is something Fitzhugh and his wife, Katherine, know well. Inside families, American Indians acknowledged their heritage, but ”outside, you had to deny it,” she said. ”It’s sad.”
Once, after leaving his Cambridge home for the day,
Fitzhugh said he had to fight a group of boys making fun of his moccasins in the 1950s. ”Racism sometimes wasn’t as subtle back then,” he said.
Fitzhugh draws inspiration from the civil rights movement.
”They helped, just in letting people know that there were Indian people right here, too,” he said. ”And we realized that we didn’t have to just take everything silently.”
At 13, he saw the civil rights movement just outside his window where Maryland National Guard troops stood in his street as his city burned and rioting tore it apart.
Thus motivated, he speaks and travels around the Eastern Shore. Collectively, the tribe raises its voice at an annual riverside festival in Vienna, not far from where the tribe lived its days hundreds of years ago.
New leaders are rising up within the tribe and Fitzhugh said he’s optimistic for what life will be like for his nearly 1-year-old grandson.
”In the last 20 years, there has been a rising recognition. There have been gains. I believe that a lot more people know we are here – know we’ve always been here and that we always will be here.”
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