ANNAPOLIS – A decision may be near on the final resting place for the partial remains of about 500 Maryland Piscataway Indians held for more than 50 years by the Maryland Historical Trust and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
Tribal politics and a lack of federal or state recognition for any Piscataway tribe have left the remains, found on an Accokeek farm in the 1930s, in limbo for decades.
Over the years, two Piscataway groups, interested in reburial of their ancestors, have filed claims for the bones, but neither the trust nor the Smithsonian has been able to decide which group can have them.
Now the trust has decided to hand over the remains to the first group that gets state recognition, said Richard B. Hughes, chief of the Maryland Historical Trust Office of Archeology.
The Piscataway Conoy Provisional Tribal Council has awaited approval of its petition for the last four years, since the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs favorably recommended it for state recognition.
There is a strong movement to resolve that petition, which has been languishing in the Secretary of Housing’s office, according to recent statements made by Bobby A. Little Bear, Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs chairman.
At least one member of the PCPTC is frustrated by the trust’s position on repatriation.
“Giving us the bones back and the issue of us getting recognition are two separate issues to me and they should not be combined,” said Maurice Proctor. His wife, Natalie, is vice president of the Maryland Indian Heritage Society, which joined with the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes to form the PCPTC.
“It has gotten to the point where it’s just so frustrating trying to talk to these people,” said Proctor. “They keep saying, ‘Well, you guys are not together, you know, so how can we give it to you?'”
But the trust has only a relatively small amount of the remains found on the Hard Bargain Farm, now an environmental center in Accokeek. The Smithsonian has both the highest quality and most remains from the farm.
In the early 1930s, weekend-farmer Alice Ferguson noticed that people were finding small artifacts in her fields and decided to do some digging around, according to newspaper reports. Between 1935 and 1939, she uncovered at least five mass-burial pits containing the 300-year-old remains of about 500 Piscataway Indians.
Over the years, she gave most of the remains, the bones from about 467 individuals, to the Smithsonian. She called the trust to come pick up what was left — the very partial remains of 36 individuals — said Hughes.
The trust has determined that the remains are of Piscataway Indians. State officials say that most of the about 25,000 American Indians who live in Maryland are Piscataway. But after the 1978 death of an important Piscataway figure, Turkey Tayac, the tribe broke in three: the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes, the Maryland Indian Heritage Society and the Piscataway Indian Nation.
The Smithsonian has set up a system for resolving repatriation disputes between groups. But the Piscataway dispute hasn’t been addressed by the Repatriation Review Committee, said Chairman Russell Thornton.
Although the Smithsonian’s repatriation efforts are governed by a 1989 law that favors federally recognized groups, “We try to interpret that law broadly,” said Thornton.
No Piscataway group has federal recognition, however state recognition is seen as a stepping stone. In order for a tribe to gain state recognition, it must prove that it has been an organized group back to 1790, Little Bear said, a requirement that is modeled after those for federal recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The repatriation office tries to accommodate non-federally recognized tribes, said Thornton, although he wasn’t aware of any U.S. tribes that have not been recognized either by the state or the federal government that have, on their own, had a successful repatriation request from his office.
Thornton said any decision by the trust probably would not influence his committee’s decision and, he said, repatriation efforts should not be sought by one group with the motive of achieving legitimacy over another.
“It’s kind of unfortunate that this repatriation issue has gotten, on occasion, caught up in kind of local tribal politics,” said Thornton.
There seems to be little question that the Piscataway groups’ competition has held up the fate of the remains.
“I know that the rivalry between the groups has definitely been a factor in the process. There’s no doubt about that,” said Hughes.
The years of excuses have made Proctor pessimistic: “I think it’s just a game they play to pass the time hoping that we will all die off.”