Indigenous Cultural Landscapes

An example of an ICL: the Chicone Creek, a tributary of the Nanticoke River, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.
An example of an ICL: the Chicone Creek, a tributary of the Nanticoke River, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

What is an Indigenous Cultural Landscape?

Cultural landscapes, as defined by the National Park Service, are areas that reveal our relationship with place and strengthen our understanding of historic events, significant people, and patterns in American history.

First introduced in the trail’s Comprehensive Management Plan, Indigenous Cultural Landscapes are intended to represent large landscapes from the perspective of American Indian nations. They are characteristic of the natural and cultural resources that supported American Indian lifeways and settlements.

Indigenous Cultural Landscapes are places where uniquely Indigenous perspectives can be understood and applied in land-management decisions. For example, when studying these landscapes, researchers must understand that American Indian places were not confined to the sites of houses, towns, or settlements. The American Indian view of one's homeland is holistic rather than separated into elements typically used in our language today, such as "hunting grounds", "villages", or "sacred sites”.

Considered trail-related resources, these evocative places may be important to descendant American Indian communities today as well as to conservation strategies in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Participation from tribes has allowed these studies to help illuminate and describe places that have significance to tribes today. Ongoing research is helping to define and identify large landscapes.

NPS Subject Website: Cultural Landscapes

How Are ICLs Defined?

Indigenous Cultural Landscapes are made up of the cultural and natural resources that would have supported the historic lifestyles and settlement patterns of an Indian group as a whole.

To understand ICLs in the Chesapeake region, it is helpful to understand the historical and landscape features that researchers look for. It is important to note that there may be different criteria for what comprises an ICL depending on the group and the environment where they live.

Below are examples of what researchers might look for when defining an ICL in the Chesapeake Bay watershed:


  • Good agricultural soil (fine sandy loam, 1-2% grade)

  • Fresh water source (because river or creek water may be brackish)

  • Nearby river for transportation

  • Landing place for canoes (meeting of two rivers is optimal)

  • Marshes nearby (for waterfowl, shellfish, reeds, tubes, muskrat, turtles)

  • Brush areas (for small game, berries)

  • Primary or mixed deciduous forest (can be restored or restorable, for larger game, nuts, bark, firewood)

  • Uplands that could support hunting activities (are supporting a variety of wildlife)

Historical Evidence

  • Proximity to a known American Indian community (documented through ethnohistory or archaeology; may be Contact-era or later)

  • Trails used as footpaths (usually became Colonial roads; sometimes are today’s highways and local roads).

  • Areas used repeatedly for food or medicine acquisition (shell middens, plant gathering sites)

  • Areas with materials for tool making (quarries)

  • Places with high probability for ceremonial or spiritual use (even if not documented), or known by a descendent community to have been used for ceremony

  • Places that could have supported activities of Indian communities, such as trading places or meeting places

  • Places associated with ancestors or part of a descendent community’s past, known through tribal history, oral history, or archaeology.

Chief William Daisey holds up the flag of the Nanticoke Indian Association
Chief William H. Daisey holds up the flag of the Nanticoke Indian Association.

Overview of ICL Studies

Initial Study, 2013
A team from the University of Maryland completed a
prototype methodology summary with recommendations for further research.

Nanticoke River, 2013
The University of Maryland team completed a
pilot study of the Nanticoke River watershed using their prototype methodology.

A beaver lodge in a wetland in summer
A beaver lodge in the Nanjemoy Preserve

Nature Conservancy

Nanjemoy and Mattawoman Creeks, 2015
Researchers from St. Mary's College of Maryland completed a study of the Nanjemoy and Mattawoman Creek watersheds. This study added the dimension of predictive modeling, which was field-tested with excellent results.

Lower Susquehanna River, 2015
Studies of the Lower Susquehanna River in 2015 tested the ICL concept in a landscape that has been greatly altered by industry, especially dams that affected the aquatic and shoreline ecosystems. The area also lacks a strong association with a particular nearby descendant community, although nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy in upstate New York recognize the Susquehannock, who later left the area, as their ancestors. An initial study, Contact Period Landscapes of the Lower Susquehanna, focused on gathering archaeological data and information from subject matter experts to identify high-probability areas for habitation. A further study by Bucknell University, ICL study of CAJO NHT: The Lower Susquehanna Area, provided a narrative of probable American Indian habitation with a bibliography.

Framing Narrative and Priority Report, 2016
In 2016, NPS produced a framing narrative with recommendations for further ICL research and application based on reflections from the Lower Susquehanna studies. Additionally, the St. Mary’s team produced an ICL priorities report for the tidal Chesapeake Bay watershed. This report was commissioned to help the National Park Service prioritize ICL research areas over the coming years.

Map of Rappahannock River with areas marked by tribe members
Figure from the Rappahannock ICL depicting areas marked by tribal members.

Rappahannock River, 2016
In December 2016, the St. Mary’s College of Maryland research team delivered their report Defining the Rappahannock Indigenous Cultural Landscape. The project team mapped 552 square miles of the middle Rappahannock River basin between Port Royal and Totuskey Creek in Virginia, the aboriginal territory of the Rappahannock Indians. Members of the Rappahannock Indian Tribe contributed significantly to the project and the report’s recommendations. Data analysis and consultation with the tribal community led to important reconsiderations of previous scholarly research.

York, Pamunkey, and Mattaponi Rivers, 2019
Working with the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe, and Mattaponi Indian Tribe, the St. Mary’s College researchers completed an ICL study of the York, Mattaponi, and Pamunkey Rivers.

Chester and Sassafras Rivers, 2022
In December, 2022, Dr. John Seidal and his team from Washington College's Past is Present Archeology Lab completed an Indigenous Cultural Landscape report for the Chester and Sassafras River watersheds. Prior to colonization, this area was the home of the Tockwogh, Wicomiss, and Matapeake peoples. The team met with members of the Lenape Tribe of Delaware and the Nanticoke Indian Association, who provided valuable insights.

Timeline of ICL studies to date
Timeline of ICL projects completed to date.

Future Research

To define, study, and test the concept of Indigenous Cultural Landscapes, American Indian tribal members, state historic preservation and natural resource officials, archaeologists, and NPS staff have convened since 2010 to articulate criteria, identify landscapes, and conduct regional and national outreach. An ICL resource group comprised of NPS staff, tribal members, and researchers has informed and helped refine the concept and is fostering applications beyond the Chesapeake region.

The February 2016 ICL priorities report indicates that the James River, including the Nansemond and Chickahominy rivers, are likely candidates for future research. All research reports will be published by NPS here when they are final. Additional watersheds will be documented as funding allows. Selection of watersheds for study is informed by preliminary modeling of the Chesapeake, where archaeological evidence or information combined with natural features suggests a pre-Contact American Indian presence.



Visitor experiences of the trail’s major themes – American Indian cultures of the 17th century and today, John Smith’s voyages, and the Chesapeake environment of then and now – depend on the continued presence of key resources along the trail, including landscapes evocative of the early 17th century.

The NPS envisions indigenous cultural landscape research being informative and useful in multiple ways, including for future National Register of Historic Places eligibility determinations of historic districts that are part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail. Additionally, Tribes have the option to participate in and use the research in their efforts to identify places of historical and cultural significance.

As awareness of the concept spreads and mapping provides a more detailed definition of landscapes, more public agencies and academic partners may adopt the approach as a means to engage American Indians in identifying and conserving special places, as well as the development of public outreach programs, helping the general public to see the landscape through Indigenous eyes.

To that end, the ICL reports may also inform interpretive programs at parks and museums going forward. Educational materials such as field guides could be produced that point out features of a landscape through an indigenous lens.

Other federal agencies and partner organizations also collaborate on research designed to understand landscape-scale significance and potential impacts on management planning. In November 2015, the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), released A Guidance Document for Characterizing Tribal Cultural Landscapes. That report was prepared by BOEM and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Makah Tribe, Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, Yurok Tribe, and National Marine Sanctuary Foundation.

Glossary of Terms

Lifeways Term for “way of living” typically used in the fields of Indigenous studies, archeology, anthropology, etc.
Late Woodland Period The Late Woodland Period is an archeological period in North America that occurred between AD 900 and 1650. Here in the mid-Atlantic, the period is defined by the introduction of maize, chiefdom societies, and European contact.
Primary forest A forest in the final stage of forest succession (growth) that supports a steady community of plants, animals, and fungi
Mixed-deciduous forest A forest with two or more dominant tree species. These forests typically have four layers, a canopy layer of tall trees, an understory layer of smaller trees, a shrub layer, and a ground-cover layer.
Uplands An area of higher elevation.
Watershed The area of land that drains into a particular body of water. The Chesapeake Bay watershed stretches from Virginia to New York.
Settlement patterns The design of a settlement. For example, are structures built close to one another? Are towns near coasts or mountains?
GIS Geographic Information System. A set of computer-based tools that allow researchers to analyze and map geographic data.
Emergent vegetation A category of plant. Also known as marsh plants, emergent vegetation has underwater roots and leaves that extend above the water.
Loam Loam is a type of soil made up of sand, silt, and a small amount of clay. Considered ideal for farming.
Anadromous Refers to a fish that travels from saltwater up a river into freshwater in order to spawn. Examples in the bay include shad and sturgeon.
Palisade A protective fence or wall.
Easement A conservation easement is a legal agreement that limits the uses of the land to protect a property for future generations.
Oral history The use of interviews and recordings to gather information about individuals, history, and cultures.
Core settlement An area of a society with a lot of activity, where daily life took place.
Regalia Ceremonial clothing worn by American Indians. Today, regalia is worn on special occasions, such as at Pow Wows.
Repository A place, such as a museum, where archeological artifacts are stored and preserved.
Landing spot A place where canoes are pulled up to shore and launched.
Contact period The period between the 15th and 17th centuries when Europeans began to arrive and settle in North America
Descendent community The people living today who are linked by their ancestry to a historic group or location.
Evocative landscape A landscape that is suggestive of what people in the past would have experienced and valued.
Viewshed The geographical area that is within the line of sight when standing in a particular location.
Alluvial Refers to soil that has been transported and shaped by water.
Tuckahoe An aquatic plant native to the Chesapeake Bay whose roots were a valuable food source to American Indians.
Chinquapins A chestnut.
Food-ways The cultural, economic, and cultural practices related to food production and consumption.
Reservation An area of land managed by a tribe.
Ethnography The study of the customs of a group of people.
Burial mound A mound of earth and stones built over a grave.
Subsistence Economy An economy based on the basics of survival, such as food and shelter. These systems usually involve the barter of goods rather than the use of money.
Prestige goods Items that indicate wealth and/or status.
Lumps High pieces of land in marshes.

Last updated: May 5, 2023

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