by Caitlyn Johnstone
November 20, 2018
Having your name mispronounced can be irritating; having it mispronounced consistently can be disrespectful. For one American Indian tribe of the D.C. area, their name was so changed as to bear little resemblance to the original word— yet that name is all that remains of the tribe.
In 1608, John Smith commissioned a map of an eastern tributary of the Potomac River. At the time, the area was populated by sturgeon, ducks, deer and the thriving Nacotchtank tribe. It was an ideal region for Europeans to settle in, and they soon took control of the land and game.
The Nacotchtank tribe, whom the Europeans referred to as “Nacostine,” then adding the prefix A to get “Anacostine,” retreated to what is now Roosevelt Island and quietly faded over time. All that remains is the region and river that bears their name, so far anglicized as to be unrecognizably linked to these riverside peoples: Anacostia. The tribe is now officially extinct.
Today the Anacostia River and its surrounding neighborhoods are on the “wrong side” of the D.C. area. The area covers wards 7 and 8, areas overwhelmingly underserved, more ethnically diverse and less affluent compared to most of D.C. In 2016, the radio program “Anacostia Unmapped” brought light to this issue with the story of a map drawn to show rental prices in the D.C. area. The Virginia suburbs of Arlington and Alexandria were included in the map, while the neighborhoods directly in the D.C. area on the other side of the Anacostia were erased.
Jason Anderson is a descendent of the Nacotchtank tribe and current resident of Anacostia who voiced his story on the “The Settler and the Map” episode of Anacostia Unmapped. “When native indigenous people are removed from their land, mass murdered, gentrified, eliminated,” explained Anderson, “Elders and shamans of the tribe would use ritual to assign missions to certain spirits to represent what was lost, to hold up their legacy and remember. I am the manifestation of some of those prayers and rituals that were conducted during our extermination.”
Through art and voice, residents are working to take back their culture and their presence from misrepresentation and erasure. “Anacostia Unmapped 2.0” showcased artwork based on the stories of its people, including the above artwork by nineteen-year-old Yetunde Mondie Sapp, entitled Eracism. Historic Anacostia was originally known as “the remainder of the district” and Anacostia as the “forgotten river.”
As a current resident of the neighborhood, Sapp sees in Anacostia’s revitalization the danger of her people and history being buffed out like the Nacotchtank. As new buildings, new projects, and new people move in to the area, the current residents are in danger of being pushed into the shadows. Efforts like Anacostia Unmapped give a voice to the residents, with the hope that they can be active partners in the revitalization.
Book history may be written by the victors, but memories and life are written in the community. This year is the Year of the Anacostia and the 100th anniversary of the law which preserved open space along the river as Anacostia Park. As residents of the current and the ancient communities of the area, Anderson and artists like Sapp are looking to the past to draw parallels and bring life to, rather than erasure of, the Anacostia and its future.