ANNAPOLIS – This Thanksgiving, some Maryland American Indians are hopeful their bid for state recognition is nearing a close.
More than four years after the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs favorably recommended the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes for state recognition, the Secretary of Housing may finally be ready to send the issue along to Gov. Parris N. Glendening.
About 25,000 American Indians, most of whom are Piscataway, live in Maryland, according to commission estimates. But since the death of an important Piscataway figure, Turkey Tayac, in 1978, the Piscataway have broken up into three tribes: PCCS, the Piscataway Indian Nation and the Maryland Indian Heritage Society.
No Maryland tribes have gained state or federal recognition, although the commission is also considering a petition by the Piscataway Indian Nation.
Disputes between the petitioning Piscataway tribes may have contributed to the length of the process, although officials say they just want to get it right.
“These are very complex issues,” said Ed McDonough, spokesman for Housing Secretary Raymond A. Skinner. “The committee may be coming at it from a different point of view than the secretary who needs to come at it with the needs of the state in mind.”
The issue was delayed when Skinner took over for the previous secretary on Dec. 17, 1998, McDonough said: “That kind of put the issue back to square one.” And since the Piscataway is the first tribe to attempt to receive state recognition, “Any time you do something for the first time, there is a learning curve,” said McDonough.
But regardless of who or what is responsible for the holdup, some American Indians said they aren’t satisfied.
“I don’t have a problem with the secretary questioning us…the state needs to know that we did our job,” said Bobby A. Little Bear, commission chairman and member of the Osage tribe of Oklahoma who lives in Montgomery County.
“I am frustrated with the length of time that it has taken,” said Little Bear. “We have a responsibility to our petitioners to give them an answer within a reasonable amount of time.”
“It’s ridiculous that (the governor) sits on something that was approved in 1996,” said Mervin Savoy, leader of the PCCS.
But Gov. Parris N. Glendening hasn’t even considered the issue.
“He has not even begun to look at it,” said Michael E. Morrill, the governor’s communications director. The governor won’t look at the tribe’s bid for recognition until he gets the recommendation from the housing secretary, said Morrill.
And, with Glendening’s term due to expire in 2003, time for a decision is waning.
“We probably need to go back and put in more timelines,” said Little Bear. “We do need to rewrite and review the process…and we will be doing that.”
Many of those involved in the decision thought PCCS recognition was on the horizon for over a year. But at a reception last week celebrating Native American month, Little Bear announced she was hopeful a recommendation would be passed on to the governor soon.
“It should be going up any time now,” said Little Bear. “There is a very strong movement right now to resolve our first petition.”
What makes the holdup even more frustrating, is that state recognition doesn’t give American Indians rights or responsibilities over and above that of any Maryland minority. It is federal recognition that is associated with such controversial benefits as the right to operate gambling casinos.
“There are very, very little material gains,” said Little Bear, who explained that the only material benefit of state recognition might be a claim to some disputed burial remains.
“That’s not what it’s all about,” said Little Bear. “This is about personal pride. This is about dignity.”
“The state recognition doesn’t give us anything,” said Savoy.
But the fact that the PCCS tribe doesn’t yet have recognition, said Savoy, “is an insult to every Marylander, not just to Indians…that the people are denied their identity.”
“Maryland is supposed to be the Free State…and who is that freedom for?” said Savoy.
In order for a tribe to gain state recognition, it must prove that it has been an organized group back to 1790, said Little Bear. The specific requirements are modeled after those for federal recognition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Many see state recognition as a step toward federal recognition.