Mapping indigenous cultures along the Greenway

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Artist Karen Harley painted this map of the Greenway on deerskin and added the names of indigenous peoples living along it at the time of European contact. (photo by Jerry Markatos)

If you sit with artist Karen Harley at her dining room table in Hollister, N.C., as she talks about her background, very quickly you’ll hear the pride Harley holds for her heritage. Hers is a story of migration, about how her family moved from north central North Carolina to the Washington, D.C., area in the 1950s and 1960s. They left for better job prospects, just as many other Haliwa-Saponi Indian families did, and just as their ancestors migrated south from Virginia in search of better sustenance. Part of Harley’s heart remained in rural North Carolina, where she would visit each summer and where her parents returned in their retirement. Eleven years ago, she and her husband, a Piscataway Indian from Maryland, moved back. “It’s very rural, not much has changed in 50 years,” she laughs. “Now we have a Dollar General, a gas station, and a convenience store.”

Roots mean a lot to Harley. When the East Coast Greenway Alliance contracted with her to paint a map of the Greenway showing the indigenous people living along its route at the time of European contact, she knew the project was a great fit. 

“I like doing anything with maps that brings attention to Native Americans living on the East Coast,” she says. “Usually people only think of the Indian tribes out West.”

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Artist Karen Harley, a Haliwa-Saponi Indian, works on the deerskin painting of the East Coast Greenway in her Hollister, N.C., studio.

The Alliance undertook the mapping project to help Greenway visitors begin to think about the rich history and culture throughout the Eastern Seaboard, says Dennis Markatos-Soriano, executive director. “I love that the East Coast Greenway connects us to so much — to cultures, nature, history and more,” he says. “Some parts of our country’s history are less well known and more important for us to lift up. Experiencing the Greenway means not just manatees and key lime pie but also cultures that we want to celebrate.” 

Markatos-Soriano and Lisa Watts, the Greenway’s content manager, did some initial research on tribes throughout the Eastern Seaboard. Then we turned to experts connected to the Smithsonian Institution to lead the final decisions on the map. The expertise of a review team  — Doug Herman, senior geographer, Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian; Margaret Pearce, assistant professor of geography specializing in indigenous studies, University of Kansas; and Dan Cole, chief cartographer, Smithsonian Institution — informed the overview map we developed together. 

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Our review team helped us identify indigenous peoples along the Greenway at the time of European contact.

Pearce notes that learning about American Indian culture isn’t just a study in history. “Native people are so rarely perceived as sovereign nations in the present,” she says. Harley agrees. For her interpretation of the map, which she painted on deerskin, Harley added a few spot illustrations -- two types of canoes and four types of homes representative of their regions. Harley has explored many traditional arts, learned from elders of her tribe, including pottery, basketmaking, making dolls, and painting on hides. But she encourages Greenway visitors to stop and learn more in their travels, visiting tribal buildings where possible. “People talk as if Native Americans are in the past,” Harley says, “as if they don’t exist now.” We want to help people in our corridor be aware of their past and present. 

The East Coast Greenway enjoys a particularly strong connection with the Passamaquoddy tribe at our northernmost point. The Greenway starts just steps from the Wabanaki Culture Center and Museum in Calais, Maine. Passamaquoddy tribal members have sent off a number of Greenway groups over the years with smudgings and blessings for a safe journey.

“As native people, as Passamaquoddy, we welcome the East Coast Greenway as a way to help people connect their bodies, hearts, and minds,” says Denise Altvater, who works with Maine’s Wabanaki Program, “and to better connect them to the beautiful land around us.” 

“I deeply value our partnership with the Passamaquoddy people,” says Markatos-Soriano.  “They’ve been an important part of so many ECGA events. I want others to get to know them.”

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The National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian Institution, is located directly on the East Coast Greenway in Washington, D.C.

Between Maine and Florida, countless historic sites, centers, museums, and events share more about Native American culture. See list of sites close to the Greenway


“Any trail, any major road basically started as an Indian trail,” Harley says of mapping the Greenway. In her painting, she has added animal tracks along the route relevant to each region -- animals that indigenous people may have tracked and hunted. She begins with moose in Maine and moves south with bear, wolf, beaver, raccoon, wild turkey, rabbit, and alligator tracks. For housing, she painted a cone wigwam/birchbark house in the Northeast, then moving south a longhouse, wigwam, wattle and daub houses (also known as chickee huts). For transportation, she painted a birch bark canoe in the North and a dugout canoe in the South.

Helping Greenway enthusiasts learn more about the indigenous people of the East Coast is satisfying both professionally and personally for Markatos-Soriano. He grew up playing in the forests and creek beds of central North Carolina, where he’d find artifacts such as arrowheads and feel a connection with the area’s earlier inhabitants. “I’ve seen the same interest in my own kids, connecting with that history,” he says. “I would love for people to be surprised and learn more about these indigenous people, then explore further themselves. Go visit the national museum and others sites. Attend a powwow and connect with these vibrant communities.”

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The Native American mapping project was underwritten by a generous donor with an avid interest in telling the story of indigenous people. “To take on special programs like this requires visionary philanthropists,” explains Markatos-Soriano. “We were lucky to find a leader who is just that, who kickstarted this project.”

For Harley, wanting to tell others about her people and what that heritage means to her has driven much of her art since she was a schoolgirl. She was the only Native American in her College Park, Maryland, elementary school. Classmates would ask her, “Do you live in a teepee?” She’d have to explain how American Indians have evolved just as the white settlers did. She graduated from the University of Maryland, then attended the Schuler School of Fine Arts in Baltimore and got more serious. She has work in the permanent collections of the Pequot Museum in Connecticut and North Carolina State University's Gregg Museum.

“My mission,” she says, “is to bring awareness of the tribes on the East Coast.”

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North Carolinians: 24th Annual American Indian Heritage Celebration  

Check out the deerskin Greenway map in person at this American Indian celebration at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, Saturday, November 23, 11 am - 4 pm. We'll display the map at artist Karen Harley's table. 


“The East Coast Greenway passes through or near Native American nations with vibrant, living cultures.  These nations are the first peoples of the East Coast, and their ancestors were among the first to encounter European colonization in North America. Their stories of survival, renewal, and persistence emphasize the resilience of Indigenous communities and cultures,” says Ryan Emanuel, a Lumbee Indian and associate professor in the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University. 

“Highlighting Indigenous peoples through collaborative mapping work is one way to raise awareness about tribal nations.  Visitors and residents alike have a valuable new resource for learning about the tribal nations whose territories they cross while traveling the greenway.”

Markatos-Soriano notes that it’s an important time for the East Coast Greenway to help build community. “The Greenway can offer an antidote to the current political climate in the United States,” he says. “We have an important role to play in bringing cultures together.”

The mapping project is a first step in the East Coast Greenway Alliance’s plans to inform visitors about the experiences and heritage along the route. “We wanted to start by honoring these first nations,” Markatos-Soriano says. “We hope to continue to honor the rich cultural mix all along our route. Our main job is to develop safe infrastructure, but our next step is to highlight the types of experiences people can have —the history, natural features, culture and communities and food — as we build towards our goal of becoming the most popular park in America.”


Read more of our November 2019 On the Greenway newsletter

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