A few years back, Julie Tayac Yates was fishing in Virginia’s Leesylvania State Park when a game warden asked to see her fishing license. Although she has one, she says, “I told him I did not need a fishing license because I am Native American. When the Europeans came over in the 1600s and decided to take our land, there was a treaty which gave us fishing and hunting rights.”
Yates, a member of the Piscataway Indian Nation, was born in 1951 in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where the Potomac joins the Chesapeake Bay. There, she fished and crabbed with her family, as her ancestors had done for centuries, and learned how to make fishing hooks out of catfish bone. Mostly, she learned to love the river, to read and listen to it. She still crabs, and she fishes the Potomac—usually at Quantico Marine base. She’ll bring home her catch—rockfish, bluegill, perch (though not catfish, due to its mercury content)—and often fry it up in her father’s 100-year-old cast-iron skillet.
While Yates doesn’t eat fish caught in the more polluted waters of the District, she and others recently got the DC Council to consider a bill that would honor the 1666 treaty and make fishing licenses free for the Piscataway people.
“I have four grandchildren,” Yates says. “They all fish. It’s important to me that they continue the legacy.”
Part of her family’s legacy is told at Piscataway Park in Fort Washington, where her father, Chief Turkey Tayac, is buried. “You can pick up pamphlets about the history of the Piscataway people,” she says. “There are over 500 Native Americans buried in that area. The history is there. Every time I go, I feel it. I can see my dad chewing tobacco and hear him telling stories.”
This article initially appeared in our September, 2020 issue. To view the entire guide to the Potomac, click here.