Cape Gazette
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Saltwater Portrait

Nanticokes keep heritage alive in Sussex

Museum coordinators pass down native traditions
By Kara Nuzback | Apr 09, 2013
Artwork by: Chris Foster June Harmon-Robbins and Sterling Street keep traditions alive at the Nanticoke Indian Museum on Route 24.

Oak Orchard — The walls of the Nanticoke Indian Museum are lined with books.  A stage spans one wall, crowded with animal skins and artifacts against a backdrop of small black silhouettes paddling canoes across a blue sea.

Museum Coordinators June Harmon-Robbins and Sterling Street dedicate their days to passing the Nanticoke legacy to children both inside and outside of the tribe.

Harmon-Robbins, 67, is married to Nanticoke Indian Chief Herman Robbins, and her roots with the tribe run deep.

She was raised on her family’s land, just two blocks from where the museum sits on Route 24 in Oak Orchard.  “I’ve lived here all my life,” she said.

When Harmon-Robbins and Street were growing up, the Nanticoke tribe was almost completely self-sustaining; families grew their own food and made their own clothes.

Harmon-Robbins grew up in a family of 13, with no electricity and no running water.

She said her family grew produce they would sell to local grocery stores, but they were not allowed in the building.  “They wouldn’t recognize Native Americans at that time.  They only recognized blacks and whites,” she said.

Her great-grandfather, Isaac Harmon, established the Harmon School for Nanticoke Indian children in 1921.  Harmon-Robbins said after it was built, the state took control of the school, renamed it Worwic No. 225 and made it a school for black children, who were not allowed to attend school with whites until the 1960s.

Harmon then established the Nanticoke Indian School. “So we could retain our heritage,” Harmon-Robbins said.  She attended the school until ninth grade.

In 1964, she went to Georgetown High School, which by that time had been desegregated.  But, she said, she mostly stayed in the small cluster of other Native Americans with whom she had grown up.

“We stayed within our culture and our traditions,” she said.

Street, 70, grew up in Wilmington, but his father, a Nanticoke Indian, was from the Cape Region, and his grandparents lived on a vegetable farm near Harbeson.  He would often visit the farm and listen to them talk about the family’s Nanticoke heritage.  “I was always interested in history and genealogy,” he said.

Street said there were only about 10 Nanticoke families in the Region at the time.  “We were all related to each other in one way or another,” he said.  “We did a lot of things for each other.  It was very community-oriented.”

Before he started work at the Nanticoke Indian Museum, Street worked for Delmarva Power and Light for nearly 40 years.  He moved to Sussex County full-time in 1999, but he said he has been a member of the Nanticoke Indian Association since the 1970s.

Powwows

For a time, the Nanticokes gave up their annual cultural celebration – the powwow.  Street said powwows ceased during the Great Depression.  “But they still maintained their community relationship,” he said of the tribe.

Harmon-Robbins said it was not until 1976 that a preacher at the Indian Mission Church in Millsboro told the tribe he feared their heritage was being lost.  He proposed reviving the powwow, and the tribe has held the traditional gathering every year since.

Powwows feature native music, dance, clothing and art. Street practices traditional drumming and singing at the powwows; Harmon-Robbins is a dancer.

“I’ve been dancing ever since 1976,” she said.  “I’ll stay in it until I can’t walk.”

The Toe Dance, a traditional dance for Nanticoke women to honor their elders, is Harmon-Robbins’ specialty, and she has taught the dance to her daughter and grandchildren.

Some traditions never die

Unlike powwows, the Nanticokes have never put their traditional naming ceremonies on hiatus.  Street, who is a whiz with the native language, was given the name Ahkee Kanow, or Earth Keeper, by a cousin.  “Because she knew that I liked farming and working with nature,” he said.

Harmon-Robbins’ sister gave her the name Weschpa Poomalasuq, or Morning Star, because of her demeanor.  “I try to be happy all the time,” she said.

The Nanticokes continue to hold naming ceremonies for children of the tribe, but Street and Harmon-Robbins both say today’s Nanticoke children live far different lives than when they were children.

“We didn’t have all the distractions that are around now,” Street said.  There is still a close-knit community among the tribal members, “But not like it used to be,” he said.

The tribe holds programs at the old Nanticoke Indian School to teach culture and powwow etiquette to Nanticoke children. “We’re trying to pass it along,” Street said.

Besides museum tours and powwows, Street and Harmon-Robbins visit local schools and civic organizations, such as the Lions Club, to talk about their history and keep the Nanticoke heritage alive outside of the tribe.

“We try to dispel the stereotypes that television portrayed,” Street said.  Kids today are more knowledgeable about Native American history than in generations past, he said.

“When children come in here, they know a lot about us,” Harmon-Robbins said.  “Before, we didn’t get recognized.”

The museum gets hundreds of visitors every year, Harmon-Robbins said.  She and Street are preparing for the tribe’s next cultural event – a heritage celebration, to be held mid-May – which will feature traditional food, drumming, dancing and storytelling.

“We’re here to stay,” Harmon-Robbins said.

For more information on heritage events, powwows and museum hours, go to nanticokeindians.org.

The annual Nanticoke Powwow in Millsboro is a display of vibrant culture.  Shown at last year's powwow is Anna Perez of the Tanio Tribe, performing in the Fancy Shawl dance. (Photo by: Steven Billups)
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