Why Indigenous People Matter in RRUUC Land Acknowledgement

There are highways and concrete drainage culverts now along the Potomac River where RRUUC sits. But, long before our area was carved into what we now know, tribes of Piscataway indigenous people had claimed this land for millennia as their ancestral territory. Its forests were filled with wildlife and medicinal plants. The Potomac was abundant with fish and aquatic animals. The trail they traveled bordering the river was known simply as “the river road.” The land was life itself for these people who honored and lived from its wisdom.

RRUUC’s Land Acknowledgement Task Force is now reaching back into this history to acknowledge the people and practices that came long ago on what we now call “our land.” You might ask: how does this acknowledgement fit within our modern spiritual UU program?


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The Indian Tribes of the State of Maryland,” University of Maryland, Digital Libraries, 1935. Note the Indigenous trail running along what appears to be River Road in Bethesda.

As stated on the Indigenous Land Acknowledgement website of Northwestern University: “Land acknowledgements do not exist in past tense, or historical context: colonialism is a current ongoing process and we need to build our mindfulness of our present participation.”

The effects of 17th century colonialism remain alive today, from discrimination toward people of color and land property rights to antiquated laws and public misconceptions. The proud tribal people who once roamed this land were driven from it, either robbed of it by broken treaties or forced to leave by warfare.  Yet, the Piscataway people, the indigenous people who held sovereignty over our land 1000 years ago, are still around and working to regain awareness of their history.

The Unitarian-Universalist Association recognizes the growing awareness of the role of colonialism in today’s perception of American history and its continuing social impact. The 2020 UUA General Assembly in Providence, Rhode Island, was held to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. In what is now Massachusetts, the Pilgrims’ arrival decimated the Wampanoag indigenous people within 20 years, a historical fact highlighted at GA. The UUA Common Read in 2020 was “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States,” a landmark book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz.

The practice of writing land acknowledgement statements was popularized in Canada starting in the early 1990s and gained momentum after the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015. Also known as territorial acknowledgments, these statements recognized the people and history of those who lived in Canada before colonial occupation. More than 5% of Canada’s population identifies today as indigenous. Land acknowledgements spread to the United States, particularly among institutions occupying traditional territory of Great Plains tribal groups and in New England where ancient tribes fought alongside colonists during the War of Independence.   

More than 40,000 people in Maryland self-identified in the 2010 census as being at least in part Native American. Of the three tribes officially recognized today in Maryland, two are from the Piscataway. By the end of the 19th century, the story of the Piscataway in the Potomac River watershed begins to converge with the story of kidnapped Africans brought to this country and to Montgomery County. But, the Piscataway story begins long before, dating back to 1300 B.C.  

This Land Acknowledgement blog will explore the role indigenous people play in the history of RRUUC land. Your input is welcomed. Please send your comments and thoughts to land@rruuc.org.

Partial Bibliography

Accokeek Creek Site, “National Historic Landmarks Program.” (1964) National Park Service.

Appleby, John. “The English fur trade in Chesapeake Bay: A case study in English commercial and entrepreneurial activity, c.1580 to 1680.” (23 November 2001).

Current Research in Archaeology. Maryland Historical Trust. https://mht.maryland.gov/archeology_projects.shtml.

Curry, Daniel C. “The Mysteries of Mass Graves.” (June/July 2000) Scientific American Discovering Archaeology.

Curry, Daniel C. “The Piscataway Indians in the Colonial Period”, Maryland Historical Trust. https://mht.maryland.gov/documents/pdf/archeology/currentresearch/heaters-island.pdf.

Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne. “An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States”. (2014). Boston: Beacon Press.

Hall, Clayton Colman. “Narratives of Early Maryland: 1633-1684.” (1910) New York: Scribner’s Sons.

The Indian Tribes of the State of Maryland University of Maryland, Digital Libraries, 1935. https://digital.lib.umd.edu/mdmap/1935/the-indian-tribes-of-the.

Indigenous Peoples of the Chesapeake, The Chesapeake Bay Program.

Otis, James. “Calvert of Maryland. A Story of Lord Baltimore’s Colony.” (1910) New York: American Book Company.

Scorza, Kathleen Elizabeth. “False Emissaries: The Jesuits among the Piscataways in Early Colonial Maryland, 1634-1648”. (2015) Dissertations, Theses, and Masters Project. College of William & Mary, Williamsburg, VA.