NANTICOKE, Wicomico, Choptank, Tuckahoe, Pocomoke.

The road signs pass in the blink of an eye as motorists cross modern bridges over primordial tributaries on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Those rivers with their peculiar names are among the few surviving reminders of Native American cultures that began inhabiting the region some 10,000 years ago. The first American tribes to be discovered by the Europeans, they were also the first to fall. In 1600, an estimated 20,000 native fishermen, farmers and hunters lived on the Delmarva peninsula; in less than 150 years after the first English contact, the native people were driven to near extinction.

Today there are virtually no physical traces of the peninsula's dozen native societies. The Eastern Shore has no signs, shrines or monuments to designate where chiefs ruled, villages stood or families lived. In that distant time, there were no writers, artists or photographers to record battles, pen ballads and create legends. Without a Wounded Knee or a Little Big Horn, no sanctified sites exist to remind either race of what happened so long ago. No Sitting Bull or George Armstrong Custer fuels the region's folklore and myth. Even sensational archeological finds win only brief public attention -- such as the 1989 unearthing of a small burial pit, dating from between 1590 and 1720 and containing remains of 27 adults, nine children and a fetus.

Once a year, for two days, the Native American culture of the Eastern Shore lives again as descendants of the Nanticokes and visiting members of other Eastern tribes join in a powwow -- a celebration and social gathering featuring native dance, music, food and fellowship. This year's powwow, open free to the public, will occur next weekend on the Nanticoke lands along the Indian River near Millsboro, Del. The site includes a Nanticoke museum and a learning center, established in 1980 in a pair of vacant Nanticoke schools. Aside from the Nanticoke lands and annual powwows, we have little except the Eastern Shore rivers as reminders of the region's first inhabitants -- the rivers and the Chesapeake Bay itself.

The first European to explore the Chesapeake was Capt. John Smith, who in 1608 left the new English settlement at Jamestown in an open boat with a small crew to see if the bay or any its tributaries provided passage to the Pacific and to the riches of the Orient. Instead, he found the primitive cultures of the Tidewater region. The Kusawaroak, or Nanticoke, were among the first with whom he made contact.

Smith's discovery of the peninsula -- and a remarkably accurate map he drew identifying each river and tribe -- Robert Kyle is a writer in Riverdale, Md. encouraged further English exploration. In 1624 King Charles I claimed Delmarva and ordered the land divided and parceled out as gifts for fellow royalty. As America's firstsubdivision was being carved from the soil of native ancestorial homelands, the first Indian wars began. The last shot would not be fired for 250 years, 3,000 miles away.

Kent Island, where today the Bay Bridge connects with Maryland's Eastern Shore, was an active trading post in 1631. Tribes from all over the region paddled canoes heaped with stacks of beaver pelts. In return they received modern tools, cheap jewelry, colored cloth, firearms and a pungent drink they called "hot water." Alcohol was unknown to Native Americans, and they possessed no genetic tolerance for it -- unlike cultures that had long used fermented drink for ceremony, celebration and recreation. In a tribal society where misconduct and crime were practically non-existent, the introduction of alcohol led to myriad social problems and violence against whites.

In 1642 Maryland Gov. Cecil Calvert declared war against the Nanticoke tribe, making it legal for an Englishman to gun down any Indian who got in his way. The war lasted 26 years, but generally was one of harassment rather than violence. In 1668, his people exhausted and demoralized, Chief Unnacokasimmon agreed to a peace treaty that essentially stripped his tribe of all rights and privileges.

With permission from the colonists, many Nanticokes moved away -- some as far as the Oklahoma territory, others to Pennsylvania and New York where they were welcomed by the Six Nations of the Iroquois. Nanticokes who did not flee were enslaved or corraled into reservations, including one of 5,000 acres near today's Vienna where Route 50 crosses the Nanticoke River. By 1743, the year of Jefferson's birth, the Nanticoke had been thoroughly displaced and scattered.

A descendant of Nanticoke chiefs, writer and artist Charles C. Clark IV ("Little Owl") wrote in Delaware Today magazine:

"The Nanticoke were now a small, inconsequential Indian nation, strangers in a land that had once been our home. We had survived the holocaust that befell the Indian race, but just barely."

As years passed, Nanticokes were assimulated into the white culture. To escape the English and seek solitude, many moved farther up the river that bears their name. But in the territory that would become Delaware, the wide Nanticoke had dwindled to little more than a shallow creek. Determined, tribe members continued eastward until they found another expansive estuary that led to the sea. They settled there on what became known as Indian River.

In the 1820s, with money saved from farming and fishing, Nanticokes adopted the white man's custom and began buying land along the river that once was occupied by the Lenni Lenape, whom the Nanticoke called "the Grandfathers," the peninsula's oldest tribe. It was near the Indian River and Millsboro, where the Nanticoke remain today.

"To Europeans the earth and its land were mere possessions, to be bought and sold according to the whims of men," wrote Little Owl. "When they asked us for lands on which to build homes, raise crops and prosper, we made the land available to them. But we did not know they would consider it to be theirs forever . . . . We had no concept of land ownership. To us the bounty of the earth was to be shared by all." The next Nanticoke battle was for individuality and equality. Because Delaware listed its residents as either white or colored, the Nanticoke were categorized with the latter and forced to attend segregated schools. Nanticoke leaders fought a six-year legal battle and in 1881 won the right to organize as the Incorporated Body, later called the Nanticoke Indian Association. Recognized by the Delaware legislature, the association provided a means for the tribe to establish private schools for its children. Not until the 1964 Civil Rights Act were the Nanticoke, nearly 400 years after making contact with the white man, finally allowed to have their children sit next to white children in a classroom.

The Nanticokes had renewed annual powwows in the 1920s. But the events ceased with World War II and did not resume until the late 1970s. Today's powwows blend ceremony and nostalgia for the past with arts and crafts of the present. Most popular are demonstrations of traditional performances where dancers dressed in full regalia honor the deer, rabbit and eagle.

But the visitor with a keen sense of history and irony leaves with much more than a day's entertainment. Witnessed is the resurrection of a timeless culture whose will to persevere is as solid and permanent as the land itself. In a fleeting revival of ancient traditions, descendants of those early European settlers -- and other visitors to the powwow -- can glimpse the past and a people who existed on the peninsula for 10 centuries in harmony with the elements without altering or defacing their mother, the Earth. In the wake of their departure, forests were cleared, fences appeared and buildings replaced wigwams. But the rivers -- the Nanticoke, Wicomico, Choptank, Tuckahoe, Pocomoke -- would endure. Robert Kyle is a writer in Riverdale, Md.