For more than 50 years, I’ve collected Native American artifacts from powwows, craft fairs and the annual holiday market at the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
My enthusiasm stems from the fact that my great-grandmother was the first white woman to settle in Steele County, Minn., and in my teen years, I spent summers at Red Pine Camp for Girls in Minnocqua, Wisc.
One of my favorite childhood trips was attending the outdoor performance of the “Song of Hiawatha” based on Longfellow’s poem and held in Pipestone, Minn. It closed after 60 years, but half a million people saw the pageant, which began in 1948. Thus, it is no wonder that I was fascinated by the lore, history, stories, crafts, art, sculpture, music, dances, fashion and culture of the Ojibwa, Chippewa, Salteaux and others of the Anishinaabe people in the northern Midwest.
And you can imagine how thrilled I was after moving to South Bethany in 1973, that the nearby Nanticokes — one of the two tribes in Delaware (the other being the Lenni-Lenape) — had their own annual powpows and eventually a museum in nearby Millsboro.
But now that I face the challenge of downsizing, I am coping with what actor Harrison Ford listed as one of his goals for 2020 when he recently admitted to Parade magazine that “I want to finally get rid of half the things I’ve accumulated in my life and organize everything. I’m trying to get rid of stuff. It might be useful to somebody else.”
And I’ve discovered that the real secret to parting with things one dearly loves is to find a home where others will take great joy from my collection as well.
The Nanticoke tribe has 550 members in Delaware but 1,500 in the U.S. The Delaware tribal council wants to keep its autonomy, so there’s no casino on its property, since those are regulated by state and local governments. Thus, the Millsboro museum is small, intact and well-organized, and emphasizes its direct ties to the area. Its coordinator, Sterling Street, is cordial, knowledgeable, affable and truly welcoming.
Most of the museum’s holdings are artifacts that have been found on family farms but were made by the tribal elders and ancestors: baskets, traps, artwork, a corn crib and even a dugout canoe. Its two rooms even hold taxidermied animals, like Annie, a 130-pound wolf raised by a woman in Selbyville who treated it as a pet. It died of cancer at 12 and now, at 26, is preserved on site. There is also a deer and a buffalo head, hides of muskrat, beaver, mink, otter and coyote.
On display are arrowheads, headdresses, a tiny basket made of peach pits, a dried gourd pitcher, tools, dolls in traditional clothes (one whose face is a dried apple) and even a belt from wampum beads, according to Jane Robbins, the museum’s technical coordinator.
But my real reason for donating my collection to the Nanticoke Indian Museum is that Director Street is committed to preserving the history and culture of the tribe because he is an eighth-generation Nanticoke himself.
Secondly, the museum is small, intimate and a real learning center directed by a tribal council that takes an active interest in its holdings. Originally, it was the Harmon School for Nanticoke Indians that held first through eighth grades, but closed in 1962 and became a museum in 1964.
Third, Street, like other tribal members, is a real environmentalist whose connection to nature is an integral part of his life. He is spiritual, believes that everything in nature contains a spirit, and, like all Native Americans, is extremely generous. All are proud people and hold dear the heritage from their forefathers.
Although no one speaks the language anymore, they use words or phrases that have been passed down through generations. Street taught me “Wanishi,” which means “thank you,” and now I use the term whenever I pack up another box and offer it to the museum, because I know they will treasure my collection as I have for so many years.
I’m still wrapping up my paintings, baskets, shields, dolls, sculptures, artwork, war shirts and cigar-store Indians, because Street has assured me that visitors, guests and students will see and appreciate my gifts, along with those already displayed, labeled and authenticated.
And even though all my pieces aren’t all genuinely made by Nanticokes, they are Native American, so thanks to Street’s acceptance of my pieces, I can be just a little part of that Nanticoke legacy that Director Sterling Street assures me will never die.