Chesapeake Tribes Today

Dancers at a powwow wearing regalia.
Dancers don regalia to perform at a powwow.



Who are the Chesapeake's Indigenous peoples?


A look at each region

It is a common misconception that Native Americans no longer live in the Chesapeake Bay region. There are tens of thousands of people in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia who identify as Indigenous. As European colonies expanded their influence further and further into Native land, many Indigenous families in the Chesapeake were indeed forced to flee to other parts of the country. Other families were able to stay in the area, often facing danger and discrimination as they lived alongside colonial society. In addition, several groups of people Native to other parts of the country moved into the Chesapeake region, fleeing persectuion in their homelands. Today, this results in a great diversity of Indigenous backgrounds represented in the region. In the sections below, we take a closer look at each section of the Chesapeake Bay watershed and some of the major communities represented. This list is not exhaustive, as the Chesapeake Bay is home to many diverse communities each with unique stories to tell. 

In 1607, the English settlers of Jamestown documented dozens of Algonquian-speaking tribes in what is now Virginia. They also noted several Siouan-speaking Tribes located west of the James River fall line. Today, the cultures of Virginia's tribes and descendant communities are vibrant and thriving, a testimony to the fortitude of their ancestors and their peoples' continuing determination to retain and reclaim their heritage. Many Tribes hold annual pow wows, provide services to their community members, preserve their ancestral lands, educate the public about their heritage, and contribute to the restoration of the Chesapeake's ecosystem. Two Tribes, the Pamunkey and Mattaponi, maintain reservation lands. The Pamunkey Indian Reservation was established in 1646, making it one of the oldest reservations in North America. 

In 2015, the Pamunkey Indian Tribe gained recognition from the U.S. federal government. Then, in 2018, 6 additional Tribes became federally recognized:

In addition to the federally recognized Tribes listed above, the following Tribes are considered state-recognized by the Commonwealth of Virginia:

Sources & Further Reading:

Indigenous Tribes lived on either side of what is now Maryland, building their towns along the state's many winding rivers. The majority of those groups were Algonquian-speaking. Today, the descendents of those Nations still live in Maryland, as well as Indigenous peoples from around the country. For example, a third of the Indigenous population living in the Baltimore area are Lumbee, a Tribe with roots in North Carolina.

In January of 2012, the state of Maryland formally recognized two Maryland Indian tribes: the Piscataway Indian Nation and Piscataway Conoy Tribe. This was the first time that the state of Maryland had taken the official action of recognizing a petition for Maryland Indian Status. In 2017, the Accohannock Indian Tribe was also recognized. 

In 1976 the Maryland General Assembly created the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs (MCIA) to represent and serve the state's native communities. Compromised of commissioners from Maryland tribes, this official statewide agency provides a forum for cooperation and communication within the native population in the state and acts as the liaison between Maryland's natives and the state and federal governments.

Today, the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs serves the following:

  • Accohannock Indian Tribe

  • Assateague Peoples Tribe

  • Nause-Waiwash Band of Indians

  • Piscataway Conoy Tribe

  • Piscataway Indian Nation

  • Pocomoke Indian Nation

  • Youghiogheny River Band of Shawnee Indians

Sources & Further Reading: 

The Kuskarawaok, now known as the Nanticoke, were an Algonquian-speaking people who originally occupied the area surrounding the Nanticoke River. Their original territory spanned the river's length, reaching the Chesapeake Bay in what is now Maryland. Today, however, the Tribe is located in Delaware, pushed from their Native homeland due to the expansion of the Maryland colony. 

Today the Nanticoke Indian Tribe is officially recognized by the state of Delaware.

Further Reading
History – Nanticoke Indian Tribe (
Nanticoke Indian Museum (U.S. National Park Service) (
Delaware History Trail Q&A with Nanticoke Indian Museum | Visit Delaware

At the time of European colonization, the Indigenous group that lived along the Susquehanna River was the Susquehannock Tribe, an Iroquoian-speaking group. The Susquehannock people were successful traders, controlling the river route that connected the Chesapeake Bay to the northeast and midwest. In the early decades of European colonization, the Susquehannock formed trading relationships with their European neighbors. However, due to disease and conflict with Europeans and other Indigenous groups, the Susquehannock population dwindled significantly. Many members of the Susquehannock abandoned the river and joined neighboring groups, such as the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Tribes to the north. 

Today there are no federally or state recognized Tribes in Pennsylvania. However, several groups, such as the Lenape (Delaware) Tribe, continue to have a modern presence in the state and are working to revitalize the Indigenous heritage of Eastern Pennsylvania. 

Sources & Further Reading:

The headwaters of the Susquehanna River, and the northernmost point of the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is the Otsego Lake in Cooperstown, New York. Native groups associated with this area include the Haudenosaunee, an alliance of Iroquoian groups more commonly known as the Iroquois Confederacy. Trade goods from the Haundenosaunee would have flowed down the Susquehanna River in the hands of Tribes like the Susquehannock, reaching the Algonquian Tribes in Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. 

Further Reading:

How did we get here?

In the articles below, we explore the long history that brought us to the present day. What happened to the Tribes in the Chesapeake Bay after John Smith's voyages? How did colonization impact Tribes in the Chesapeake, and how did these Tribes adapt as the European colonies became the United States of America?

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    Interviews with Indigenous Artisans

    Drawing on both traditional techniques and modern inspiration, artists throughout the Chesapeake Bay region are keeping Indigenous creative traditions alive. In the interviews below, several of these artists share their artwork with us and offer perspectives on their craft.

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      Last updated: March 20, 2024

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