Nanticoke Indian Museum offers insight to tribal history, culture

The annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow is planned for Sept. 7 and 8 this year, with much-anticipated drum groups, dance sessions, vendors, traditional foods and a worship service at 10 on Sunday morning.

Every year, the powwow, held on a wooded parcel at 26800 John J. Williams Highway, draws thousands interested in the tribe, its history and customs.

Hundreds more visit the Nanticoke Indian Museum.

“Here, there are artifacts from our tribe and from other tribes. This is the only Indian museum in Delaware,” explained a cordial Sterling Street, museum coordinator, who handles operations with Jane Robbins, technical coordinator.

The museum is also on John J. Williams Highway, at the intersection of Oak Orchard Road.

“We have artifacts that were found on family farms in this area; items made by our elders and ancestors from things like pine needles and branches, sinew; items like baskets, traps, artwork, books,” he explained.

In one of the building’s two rooms are animals preserved by taxidermy, including Annie, the 130-pound wolf owned by a woman in Selbyville who raised it as a pet since it was 5 weeks old, after obtaining a permit. It lived and slept with her like a beloved family dog. When the wolf died of cancer at age 12, it was preserved and placed on display at the museum.

Annie is now about 26 years old.

Children love to see and touch her, as well as the heads of deer and a buffalo, and hides of a muskrat, beaver, mink, otter and coyote.

Also on display are arrowheads used for hunting, headdresses, tiny baskets made from peach pits, larger baskets, recipe books, a pitcher fashioned from a dried gourd, tools for grinding corn and sharpening implements, and dolls in traditional clothing. One doll’s face was fashioned from a dried apple.

Interestingly, all of the doll’s eyes are pointed to the right, because of a belief that looking in that direction brings good luck and healing.

There’s a belt assembled from wampum beads, made from the North Atlantic channeled whelk shell and the white-and-purple quahog, or hard-shelled clam. The belt’s pattern recorded historical events.

“People come here to the museum from all over the world — people on tours, home-schooled children, students from private schools, senior centers. They are interested in our history,” Street said.

Objects belonging to Chief John Big Tree, who lived near Syracuse, N.Y., and was a member of the Seneca Nation, are on display. An actor, Big Tree was one of three Native American chiefs whose features were combined to make the likeness on the Indian Head nickel.

The nickel was designed by sculptor James Earle Frazer.

Big Tree became friends with a Rehoboth Beach resident, who was given some of his possessions, then donated them to the museum, Sterling explained.

“Here at the museum, we are preserving our history and our culture. This is our storehouse for our history. It’s important for us, so our kids and grandkids and their kids will know and let people know, we are still here,” Sterling said.

The museum building was originally the Harmon School for Nanticoke Indians — two rooms with one teacher instructing first through eighth grades.

It was closed in 1962, along with the structure that now houses the Nanticoke Indian Center, and students were integrated into public schools.

The museum opened in 1984 and is owned by the Nanticoke Tribe members.

Many who arrive there are knowledgeable, although some say they thought Indians still lived in teepees, Sterling said.

“There is a lot of misinformation because of things like TV and John Wayne movies,” Sterling said. It was Indians who were scalped, and bounties placed on those scalps by white settlers, not the other way around, he said, citing news articles in old newspapers.

In fact, the slur “redskin” is derived from the blood Indians shed, he said.

Settlers who came to America took land from Indians, but Sterling isn’t bitter.

“No. But it makes me angry people were that ignorant,” he said.

Robbins, though, said she can’t be true to her Christian faith and hold a grudge, that she is pleased those who found Indian artifacts delivered them to the museum, returning them to their rightful owners.

In Delaware, there are 550 Nanticoke Indians, with 1,500 nationwide. The Nanticoke were one of two tribes in Delaware, with the other being the Lenni-Lenape.

“What’s most important is that we are still here,” Sterling said.

“The most important contribution Indians made is preserving the environment. Our original religion was spiritual. We believe in the Great Spirit. We believe everything in nature is equal to each other and everything has a sprit. We said a prayer when the sun rose. We said a prayer when we cut down a tree,” he said.

“I am the seventh or eighth generation of what we know. Tourists can stop and they will see displays and artifacts of our people and people from other tribes — our library, an old corn crib, a dugout canoe made from a tree, with the inside burned out,” he said.

“I’m proud to be an Indian so I can obtain the heritage from my forefathers to honor them,” Robbins said.

“Nobody speaks the Nanticoke language fluently anymore; but we know words and phrases, and we pass them down to our children,” Sterling added.

“I’m proud I know that I descended from the Indian people of this land. We have a history. We have our culture, and the Nanticoke Tribe won’t die out.”


By Susan Canfora

Point Reporter