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A push to get more recognition for Native Americans who once called D.C. home

Armand Lione wants more Washingtonians to know of the American Indian tribes in the region

Capitol Hill resident Armand Lione, center, talks with other D.C. residents about the history of Native Americans in the city. (Dana Hedgpeth/The Washington Post)

Armand Lione, an amateur historian who lives on Capitol Hill, believes very few Washingtonians stop to think about the Native Americans who once lived in what is now the nation’s capital. And he’s been pushing for years to change that.

Instead of just sitting in his rowhouse and plugging away at his research, he’s starting to head outdoors to give history lessons to more people with his homemade posters and sidewalk setup. And he’s pushing the Smithsonian’s vast museums to display more on local tribes.

More than 400 years ago, there were clusters of Native American communities in the area of what is now the District, along the banks of the Anacostia River, by the Navy Yard and on what’s now Capitol Hill.

Two weeks ago, Lione shared his latest research findings on where — and how — Native Americans lived in the District, speaking with about 30 residents, passersby and history buffs who stopped by his sidewalk setup along Garfield Park at 2nd and E streets SE just off I-695.

“Most people don’t know the story of the Native Americans who walked the lands where so much of D.C.’s houses and buildings now sit,” Lione told his listeners.

He explained to his crowd how Garfield Park, according to his research from articles at the Library of Congress, was once used by Native American tribes as a spot to “let their dogs run.” Across from Garfield Park, Carroll estate — where brick rowhouses now sit — was land that was once part of a Native American village, Lione said. A story in the Evening Star from 1883 told of workmen digging in the area and finding “potter’s clay of very fine quality” and “human bones” that were “believed to be Native Americans.”

Another Evening Star article from Dec. 20, 1866, told of how workers on the James Creek, a tributary of the Anacostia River in Southwest D.C., were digging for a canal and found parts of spears and arrowheads believed to have been “used by the Anacostia tribe of Indians, who inhabited this region, and who formerly had a fishing station about that point,” the article stated.

An article from Aug. 14, 1871, in the National Republican told of a canoe made by Native Americans and located about 40 feet below the ground near what is now the Navy Yard. Crews were making way for a railroad in the area and destroyed the canoe, according to records.

Most of those listening to Lione’s lesson indeed had never heard of the Native Americans that once inhabited D.C.

“This is the first I’ve heard of Native American history in this part of the city, and I’ve lived here for 35 years,” said Bud Garikes, who lives near Garfield Park.

Katie Hodge, who lives nearby, said she also learned something new from Lione.

“We have this myth that nobody lived here … that Washington, D.C., was just put down,” she said. “We often don’t stop to think about it because we were taught ‘all Indians got moved West and they’re fine or don’t exist.’”

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Lione has pinpointed and researched at least a dozen spots within the District where Native Americans lived.

The Anacostans were one of the tribes that lived on the land that eventually became the nation’s capital. The Anacostia River got its name from the tribe. The tribe’s original name was the Nacotchtanks, which comes from the word “anaquashatanik” and means “a town of traders.”

In the early 1600s, the Nacotchtank tribe had about 300 members, and they lived along the banks of what is now the Anacostia River. A quarry along the Piney Branch area was used for making sharp-edged tools.

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In the late 1990s near the Whitehurst Freeway, a hammer stone, pendants and a hair comb were found. The area had likely once been a Native American village called Tohoga. On the White House grounds, bits of pottery and arrowhead points were found in the 1970s. At Bolling Air Force Base in the 1930s, bones and skulls in burial mounds that were believed to belong to the Nacotchtanks were found.

In the late 1660s, the Anacostans relocated — or were more likely forced out, according to some historians — to what they called Anacostine Island, which is now Theodore Roosevelt Island. By the 1700s, they had merged mostly with the Piscataways and other tribes because of their shrinking population.

There are no known living Anacostans, according to experts at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Jon Youngs, who lives near Lincoln Park, said he came to hear Lione’s history lesson and found it enlightening.

“Everybody knows the name Anacostia but probably don’t know that it comes from a tribe,” Youngs said. “It’s a reminder that people were living here for a long time before” it was so developed.

For Lione, a 74-year-old toxicologist who has lived in D.C. for three decades and is of Italian descent, researching Native Americans in the region became a side hobby and passion several years ago. He started delving into records at the Library of Congress and other historical societies. He eventually launched his D.C. Native History Project and started a website that tracks his findings.

Lione said he wants to see more exhibits at the National Museum of the American Indian on the Mall to honor the local tribes.

Museum officials said they’re aware of Lione’s work and his push for them to do more to recognize tribes from this region. They said Anacostans, along with the Pamunkeys and Piscataways are mentioned in the museum’s exhibit on tribes in the Chesapeake Bay area. The museum’s focus is not to just teach visitors about the past of Native Americans but also to remind them that the tribes haven’t gone anywhere and they still exist, officials said.

The museum plans to change some displays and exhibits in the coming years, officials said, and that will likely include showcasing more of the D.C. area’s tribes.

David Penney, the assistant director for research and scholarship at the American Indian museum, said that while he’s glad to hear that Lione is calling attention to sites where Native Americans once lived in the city, he’s concerned that some of the history lessons play into the stereotypes many people often have that think of tribes as “ancient Indians.”

The museum wants to promote “the past and the present and make sure there’s a connection,” Penney said. “We want people to think about American Indians as not just a stage of civilization, but that they’re also modern and contemporary.”