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October 31, 2014

Meet Native America: William H. Daisey, Chief, Nanticoke Indian Tribe

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native people today. —Dennis Zotigh 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

I'm William H. Daisey, and my title is chief of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe

Can you share your name in your language, or tell us what it means? 

It's Thunder Eagle. 

Chief William H. Daisey
Chief William H. Daisey, Nanticoke Indian Tribe. Photo courtesy of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe. 

Where is your tribe located? 

Our community is centered in Millsboro, Delaware, where the Indian River widens into Indian River Bay.

Where was your Native nation originally from? 

We're from the Eastern Shore of Chesapeake Bay in what is now Maryland. 

What is a significant point in history from your people that you would like to share? 

In 1881 the Nanticoke community was recognized by the state of Delaware. The Nanticoke Indian Association received a charter of incorporation from Delaware in 1922.

How is your tribal government set up? 

We have a chief, assistant chief, and five councilpersons

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?


How often are elected leaders chosen?

We hold elections every two years.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

We meet once a month and hold special council meetings as needed.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

I was taught to love and respect the Creator, the land, and my fellow man. I attended many gathering and ceremonies with my elders, which gave me the opportunity to have a greater understanding of our tribe's heritage, culture and the hardships people endured. I am a journeyman in over eight different trades and have over 35 years of supervisory experience acquired in private industry and the public school system. I served on the council for several years and as assistant chief before I was elected as chief.

Nanticoke Powwow 2014
Chief Daisey at the 37th annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow in September 2014. Photo by Barbara Walls, courtesy of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe.

What responsibilities do you have as a tribal leader?

I have the responsibility to be a leader and move our tribe forward, to work with people in mutual respect toward obtaining some of the goals we want to reach. To maintain, protect, and preserve our culture and heritage. To maintain a good relationship with our sister tribes.

Who inspired you as a mentor?

My father, mother, uncle, and the many Native Americans leaders who struggled and sometimes died for us.

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

Yes, Dixon Coursey and John Coursey. Both were tribal leaders of the Nanticoke Tribe in Maryland before the migration to Delaware and the dispersal to the rest of the nation. 

Approximately how many members are in your tribe?

Approximately 3000.

What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?

You have to be no further removed from a Nanticoke member than father/mother, grandfather/grandmother, brother/sister, son/daughter or uncle/aunt who is a brother or sister to the applicant's father or mother, or great uncle/great aunt who is a brother or sister to the applicant's grandfather or grandmother.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

The last person to speak the Nanticoke language fluently was Lydia Clark, who died in 1856. 

What annual events does the Nanticoke Tribe sponsor?

We have a powwow around Labor Day; a five-kilometer Unity Run, which is open to walkers, too; and a National Native American Heritage Day Celebration, which this year will be on Saturday, November 8.

Nanticoke Indian Museum
The Nanticoke Indian Museum in Millsboro, Delaware. A National Historic Landmark, the building originally housed the Harmon School for Nanticoke Children, founded in 1921. Photo reprinted under Creative Commons copyright.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?  

We have the Nanticoke Indian Museum, which is housed in a former Nanticoke schoolhouse. This is the only Native American museum in Delaware, and it is listed by the federal government as a National Historic Landmark. Visitors can get a real taste of village life as they view the artifacts, some dating back to 8,000 B.C. There is also a stage with animals and skins that were indigenous to this area.

How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?

We are a state-recognized tribe, so we don't have the same sovereignty as federally recognized tribes. 

What message would you like to share with the youth of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe?

It is important to spend time learning and embracing our culture, history, traditions, and heritage. If you fail to assume that responsibility, you will be unable to protect and preserve our heritage, and it will be lost in the sands of time. 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thanks for the opportunity! 

Thank you. 

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. 
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission. 


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