The Patawomeck Indian tribe has been awarded a Virginia Humanities grant to teach people how to hand-weave traditional eel pots at a late February workshop on Virginia’s Northern Neck.
“This idea is basically a lost art to every indigenous tribe in Virginia except for us,” said Minnie Lightner, the Patawomeck tribe’s administrative assistant. “We are the only tribe in Virginia right now that still maintains that knowledge and can still make that product.”
Patawomeck council member Brad Hatch, an anthropologist and archaeologist, will lead the February workshop in Irvington. The class is part of the Virginia Humanities’ Virginia Folklife Program in which Hatch serves as a master who shares his knowledge of the tradition with others in hopes it will be passed to future generations.
“The whole idea of the workshop is to help teach other Virginia Indian communities about our traditional knowledge with the hope that we can set up a larger Virginia Indian group where we can share traditional knowledge between communities,” Hatch said.
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The tribe’s $4,241 Virginia Humanities grant for the eel pot workshop was drawn from a pool of $238,244 the humanities council awarded last week to 32 nonprofit organizations throughout Virginia.
“It’s a Virginia communities rapid grant, is what they call it,” Hatch said. “It can fund any number of projects, but this one is funding the eel pot workshop for the Virginia Indian community.”
Virginia Humanities executive director Matthew Gibson said the council awarded the grants to projects that “span cultural celebrations, art installations, public conversations, live performances and more, each meaningfully exploring Virginia’s history, culture and traditions.”
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Hatch said making eel pots has always been a strong tradition shared among Indian tribes, and their use can be traced as far north as the coastal Algonquin tribes of Maine to as far south as Virginia, where the Patawomeck tribe first settled near Marlborough Point in the early 1300s. Today, more than 2,600 descendants of the tribe survive, with 70 percent of them residing in Stafford County’s White Oak area.
Hatch said eel traps were widely used by the members of the original Patawomeck tribe to capture a valuable food source from local waterways. He said eel remains dating back to the 1200s were discovered at archaeological sites in the middle Potomac River valley near Washington, but similar eel remains were also found in the Tidewater region of the state.
“It’s a little difficult to tell how exactly they were prepared in ancient times, but they were likely smoked to help preserve them or they could have been put in stews as well and cooked that way,” Hatch said. “It’s essentially a fish, so you can eat it any way you think you could eat a fish.”
Hatch said eel pots are created by weaving wooden splints around a cylindrical mold that’s about 21 inches long. Once in the water, eels entering the trap are funneled through the 6-inch mouth of the device into an 8-inch diameter cavity they cannot escape from.
“This specific style comes along after the Civil War based on the traditions within our tribe and from what I’ve been able to glean from other (traditions) up and down the east coast,” Hatch said.
Hatch said although colonialism most likely led to the permanent loss of many tribal customs and traditions among Native American tribes across the U.S., split White Oak basketry really didn’t become popular among indigenous Potomac River tribes until tribal members came in contact with Europeans in the 17th century. Some of those settlers shared innovations with tribes to help make some of their chores a little easier.
“Prior to that, they were using different types of materials,” Hatch said. “And it had to do with the different types of tools that were available to weave and to make materials to prepare them appropriately to weave.”
Hatch said split oak basketry is one of the important traditions that members of the Patawomeck tribe retained as a permanent anchor to their customs, traditions and heritage since the tribe’s earliest beginnings.
“It’s important to us because of the community that it’s fostered and the way we’ve resisted development, colonialism and just modernity in a general sense through the use of this object,” Hatch said. “The object itself, the history of the object, is really the history of the Potomac people.”
Hatch said he believes the tradition was maintained within his own tribe all these years because of the tribe’s extensive history of living and working on Virginia’s inland waterways.
“Fishing is very important, it’s something that’s sustained us for thousands of years and this is obviously related heavily to fishing,” Hatch said. “It becomes more of a commercial venture later in time after colonialism, but it’s something we always understood.”
Today, only two Native American tribes on the east coast still master the craft.
“We’re the only ones in Virginia,” Hatch said. “The next closest (tribe) that is still actively making eel pots are the Nanticoke, who are in Delaware now.”
Hatch said the type of eel pots he makes today are not exactly how the tribe made the traps when they first settled in Virginia, but he said they are an “adaptation” to the society all of us live in today.
“So it is indigenous, but it’s indigenous in the sense that all indigenous groups have had to adapt over time,” Hatch said. “So this is one way we’ve adapted our fishing traditions and techniques.”
Hatch said he originally learned how to handcraft the intricately hand-woven eel pots from White Oak Civil War historian D.P. Newton, along with Newton’s friend Mickey Schenemann. Hatch said soon after he finished crafting his first eel pot just over three years ago, Newton died.
“After that it makes you think you’re only a heartbeat away from losing a tradition,” Hatch said. “At that point I decided I really needed to do something to kind of help keep this tradition alive.”
Hatch’s February workshop will be an abbreviated version of the same eel pot workshop he has previously led at the Patawomeck Museum and Cultural Center in Stafford. During that nearly six-month course, Hatch said he dives deep into the history and cultural importance of basketry within Virginia Indian communities as well as the specific types of wood and materials tribal members use to craft the elaborate traps.
“We go ahead and cut the trees down, we split all the oak and everything and we weave the pots and tar them and all that stuff,” Hatch said. “We do it hands-on.”
In the same announcement of the tribe’s Virginia Folklife Program workshop last week, Virginia Humanities also reported it had awarded an $18,385 grant to the Rappahannock Indian Tribe in Indian Neck. That grant will help fund a radio-based project titled, ”In Our Own Words: Preserving Stories of the Rappahannock Tribe.”
“We are thrilled to support organizations that empower Virginians to connect with each other through the humanities, leading to stronger and more empathetic communities across the commonwealth,” Gibson said.
To learn more about Virginia Humanities’ grant program, visit VirginiaHumanities.org/grants.
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