Yates, 68, has not fished in the Anacostia for decades, in large part because pollution has made the river’s creatures unsafe to consume. But she wants to revive the tradition, she said. And she wants the city government to acknowledge the relationship her father and his ancestors had with the river.
Along with other activists, Yates is pushing the D.C. Council to revive a 1666 treaty that gives native people the “inviolable” right of “hunting Crabbing fishing & fowleing” in the area. All members of the Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, which are native to Southern Maryland, would get a free license to fish in the District.
The advocates are also supporting legislation that would allow anyone born in the District who is a member of a local, state or federally recognized tribe to include their tribal enrollment on their birth certificate. Their efforts come less than two months after D.C. officials renamed Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, and amid a growing national movement to honor Native Americans.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) recently released a plan to support Native Americans, which includes honoring long-standing treaties, as part of her presidential bid. Students across the country, including at Georgetown University and the University of Maryland, want their schools to acknowledge that campuses were built on tribal land. And historians and activists in the D.C. Native History Project are asking museums to give greater recognition to the little-known Anacostans, who used to live in the modern-day District.
“This is all, all native land,” Yates said one recent morning at Anacostia Park in Southeast Washington. “It was plentiful,” she said of the bounty her ancestors fished from the river, “but I know things have changed.”
Since 2016, officials have warned residents against consuming fish from the Anacostia and Potomac rivers. As Yates spoke, helicopters flew overhead, making beating noises that startled rafts of floating ducks. Plastic littered the river’s banks.
Yates, who now lives in suburban Virginia, said she would not eat anything out of the District’s murky rivers and doubts that the 4,000 or so other living Piscataways would either. But the bill honoring the 1666 treaty is about more than food, she said. It’s about history.
Before European settlers arrived in the 17th century, the Piscataways were one of the most populous tribes in the Chesapeake region, with vibrant communities in what is now Charles, Prince George’s, and St. Mary’s counties. After decades of activism, the Piscataway Indian Nation and Piscataway Conoy Tribe in 2012 became the first native people in Maryland to receive state recognition.
It was a significant breakthrough, Yates said, but there is more to be done. The two tribes are still not federally recognized.
“The 1666 treaty isn’t something new,” Yates said. “It’s something that already happened, that I’ve known all my life. It should be honored.”
Yates met with D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) this fall to discuss the treaty bill, joined by another advocate, Jesse Swann, who identified himself to Yates and others as chief of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe. But in an email Wednesday, a representative of the Piscataway Conoy Tribal Council wrote that Swann “is not now, nor has he ever been a Piscataway Indian Chief.”
Swann did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He is listed as chief on the piscatawaytribe.org website, but the piscatawayconoytribe.com website lists the tribal chair as Francis Gray, who has appeared at public events in recent years as the tribe’s representative. The Piscataway Conoy Facebook page has various pictures of Swann acting as chief at events with local and state officials.
A spokesman for Allen, who is sponsoring the treaty bill, told The Washington Post on Wednesday that staff members had been unaware of any questions about Swann’s tribal identity but plan to look into it. Erik Salmi, the spokesman, encouraged anyone with concerns to contact Allen’s office.
“We didn’t feel the need to question [his] credentials,” Salmi said, adding that “the larger bill is still important to be looking at.”
In an earlier interview, Allen said he is unsure how many people would seek free licenses if the bill passes. But he added that he does not think the number would be high enough to cost taxpayers much money or impose a significant administrative burden.
“Even if there’s only one person who takes advantage of it, we’re successful,” Allen said. “We are allowing government to respect and recognize their identity.”
These days, Yates — a mother of three and grandmother of four — fishes primarily at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va., which borders the Potomac River.
She has a license, she said, but will occasionally tell roaming conservation officers that, according to a 353-year-old treaty, she doesn’t actually need one.