Meet the First Woman to Lead Delaware's Nanticoke Indian Tribe
Chief Natosha Norwood Carmine wants to open a younger generation's eyes to the tribe's future.
“Whenever I was told there was something I couldn’t do,” Natosha Norwood Carmine says, “I would think, ‘It can be done.’”//Photo by Leslie Barbaro
Natosha Norwood Carmine abides by the ancient Native American belief of the Seventh Generation Principle. It counsels that every decision—personal, communal or corporate—be made in consideration of how it will affect those who have yet to walk upon the Earth.
As the first woman to lead the Nanticoke Indian Tribe of Delaware, she therefore sees herself as the guardian of seven generations to come. She approaches her duties prayerfully.
“I am sensitive and patient. I am quiet. I don’t need to be haughty or longwinded. But I have the ability to be firm,” she says.
“Sometimes, I question if I’m a good leader. But I don’t need to question. I just need to do what’s in my heart.”
Wearing a necklace of wampum, a traditional currency made of clam and oyster shell, Carmine, 59, exudes the calm of a centered nature. She speaks deliberately, radiating a determination that has grounded her since she was a child, growing up outnumbered by her brothers.
“Whenever I was told there was something I couldn’t do,” she says, “I would think, ‘It can be done.’”
Carmine describes her journey as an organic progression from realizing she wanted to become more involved in her Nanticoke ancestry to getting elected to the tribal council in 2012 to accepting the nomination for chief in late 2015, when Chief William “Thunder Eagle” Daisey stepped down at the age of 84. There were no opponents or an election. Carmine began her two-year term on Jan. 5, 2016.
“I was overwhelmed with phone calls, people asking me what it’s like to be the first female chief. I said, ‘Compared to what?’” Carmine says with a laugh. “It’s all I’ve ever known.”
Carmine estimates the Nanticoke population in Delaware at about 550, but members of the Nanticoke Indian Association are spread across the country. Members are descended from 31 people representing 13 families listed in an 1881 Act of the General Assembly.
The lineage is evident in today’s tribal registry, which is dominated by common names such as Harmon, Jackson, Norwood, Street, Wright, Johnson, Drain, Coursey and Clark.
The 1881 act, which recognized the tribe and allowed it to create its own school system, was drafted in response to the Nanticoke’s protest over a separate piece of legislation adopted six years earlier, An Act to Tax Colored Persons for the Support of Their Schools.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Nanticoke, along with other nonwhite people, were classified as black. As such, according to that 1875 act, they would have been taxed for, and forced to send their children to, colored schools, though the tribe had maintained its own educational system in an effort to preserve its cultural heritage.
The tribe continued to operate its own Nanticoke Indian Schools until desegregation in 1962, though it was not uncommon for Nanticoke children to seek a high school education at the Haskell Indian Institute in Lawrence, Kansas.
While the 1881 act recognized the Nanticoke as a “special class,” it did not signify members as Native Americans. So the tribe successfully pushed for a new law, passed in 1903, An Act to Better Establish the Identity of a Race of People Known as the Offspring of the Nanticoke Indians.
Until last year, the Nanticoke was the only tribe officially recognized by the state of Delaware. Many tribes—various Sioux, the Navajo and other prominent groups—are recognized by the federal government as sovereign nations. The Nanticoke do not enjoy that recognition. In part, because their assimilation into white society in the centuries following Capt. John Smith’s first contact in 1608 makes it tricky to document their lineage. Integration with settlers, slaves and former slaves downstate enabled the Nanticoke to become prominent landowners and businessmen after settling in the Oak Orchard area in the 1820s.
They lost their original language in 1856 with the death of Lydia Clark, who is believed to have been the last person to speak it. In 1922, in an effort by then-Chief William Russell Clark—one of Lydia’s direct descendants—to strengthen the identity of his people, the Nanticoke Indian Association was incorporated in Delaware.
Under Clark, the Nanticoke sought to rekindle interest in Indian culture through inauguration of an annual powwow to celebrate the Nanticokes’ heritage as the Tidewater People through song, dance, storytelling and traditional food, crafts and customs. Clark, one of the wealthiest residents of the county at the time, held it on his land.
The powwows were discontinued in the 1930s because of the Great Depression, then because of gas rationing during World War II, which made travel difficult. The two-day festivals, revived in 1977, now attract more than 15,000 people, including Native Americans from across the country. The Nanticoke held their 40th consecutive powwow in September.
Adrienne “Dancing Sparrow Eyes” Harmon was among the performers. The regalia for her Jingle Dress Dance takes a year to make. It requires rolling the lids of 366 snuff cans—one for each day of the year, and another for good luck—into the shape of a funnel, then sewing them onto the dress. As the dancers move, the jingles ping like the sound of rain hitting a tin roof.
Harmon, 38, began native dancing when she was about 6. “I dance to promote awareness about my Native American culture,” she says. “We’re letting people know we are still here. We never went anywhere. Whoever you are, be proud of who you are and get to know your family history.”
Growing up Carmine didn’t think much about her ancestry. “Being called Nanticoke wasn’t practiced in my family,” she says. “I didn’t think of it as a culture. I thought of it as a community culture. That was my childhood. When a way of life is all you know, that’s all that it is. It was just life in Sussex County.”
But after she graduated from Sussex Central High School in 1976, moved to Newark and married Donald Carmine, she began realizing what it meant to be Nanticoke. “Newark was far enough away for me to see a difference,” she says. “Having gotten away, I did see things in a completely different perspective.”
The next year, Carmine gave birth to the couple’s daughter, who now has three girls of her own, ages 10, 13 and 15, and they know their heritage. Carmine studied at Goldey-Beacom College, then became a paralegal. She would return to Millsboro on the weekends. By her 50s, however, Carmine grew more interested in native culture.
When she joined the five-member Tribal Council in 2012, Carmine was its youngest member. Now she is among the oldest—a testament to a renewed spirit among young men and women to preserve the ways of the Nanticoke, which becomes ever more important as the elders pass away.
“I see my role as bridging the gap between what the elders know and what the youth want and need and, at the same time, honoring our heritage in the way our ancestors intended,” she says. “It’s not about me. It’s about how I can get the Nanticoke people to open themselves up to the opportunities that they have.”
Among Carmine’s goals, she plans to begin a series of roundtable discussions with members of the tribe, nonprofit groups and governments to create programs that make the tribe stronger and, within the tribe, to recapture the traditions they can or to shape them in ways appropriate to the times. It’s part of looking out for the next seven generations.
It is in this role that Carmine’s native name, Weaver of the Web, will be summoned. That is the name she received in a ceremony from an elder who prayerfully and mindfully considered her personality. “It couldn’t have been a better one,” Carmine says. “As a spider weaves a web—they work, and they rest—I am bringing the community together.”