Piscataway Indians say it's time to rebury the bones of several dozen of their ancestors, which now lie in boxes in the locked steel cabinets of the state's archaeological collection in Annapolis.
The Piscataway, descendants of those who met Maryland's first European settlers, may finally have won that right under legislation passed by the 1992 General Assembly.
The law, when it is signed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, will end the state's claim to human remains and burial objects in the collection and permit any group -- not just Indians -- to reclaim them by showing evidence of "cultural affiliation."
The Piscataway will apply for the return of the remains as soon as regulations are written to guide the process, which will begin after the law takes effect Oct. 1, said Mervin A. Savoy, tribal chairwoman of the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and chairwoman of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs.
"They will be reburied as fast as possible," she said. "And when they are reburied it will be so that no one can ever go and dig them up again. . . . No marker, no newspaper reporters."
State archaeologists supported the bill, but they worry that valuable information about Maryland's past may be lost forever, both to science and to the Indians.
"It's one of those issues where there are no right or wrong answers," said Richard Hughes, chief of the state Office of Archaeology.
"Mankind can learn things of tremendous value" about the Indians' daily lives and cultures from the remains and related objects in these collections, he said. "On the other hand . . . people's religious and cultural values and sensitivities have to be respected."
As inventoried preliminarily, the state's collection includes the often partial remains from 16 sites of perhaps 80 American Indians. Some were found with ceremonial stone blades, pipes, beads and cups thought to have been buried with the bodies.
Also stored in the collection are the bones of about 40 European- and African-Americans.
The state acquired the material over many years from donated private collections or during professional archaeological excavations. Some remains surfaced during construction projects or shoreline erosion.
The boxed remains are kept in locked cabinets at the old Hall of Records in Annapolis. With permission, objects found with the bones can be seen and photographed, but not the bones themselves.
"Our agreement with the Indians was that we don't even look at them," Mr. Hughes said. Nor have the Indians asked to see them.
Federal legislation passed in 1990, called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, requires that federal agencies -- and any organizations that accept federal funds -- return such material to individuals or groups that can show descent from or "cultural affiliation" with the deceased.
Maryland's new law conforms with the federal law and broadens from American Indians to include all human remains, Mr. Hughes said.
Maryland's American Indians other than the Piscataway will have a difficult time documenting their cultural ties to items in the collection, officials say.
"Most of what we have currently is impossible to trace," said J. Rodney Little, director of the Division of Historical and Cultural Programs. Most of the remains in the collection are 1,000 years old or more.
"Indian groups here more than 1,000 years ago do not appear to be related to any surviving groups. Their cultures disappeared or they were killed off by subsequent migrating groups," said Mr. Little.
Of the Indians who lived in Maryland later, the Piscataway are by far the best-documented tribe, and their descendants are given a good chance of winning the return of their ancestors' remains.
What they seek are the fragmentary remains of perhaps several dozen individuals, including a few relatively complete skulls and long bones dated between A.D. 1000 and 1650.
There are also a few associated pottery shards and animal bones. They all were found in the 1930s in ossuaries at the Alice Ferguson farm on Piscataway Creek near Accokeek.
(Ossuaries are masses of disarticulated human bones. Indians are believed to have placed bones in ossuaries after the bodies had decomposed elsewhere, perhaps at temporary surface or above-ground resting places.)
Most of the bones from the Accokeek ossuaries were given to the Smithsonian Institution and the University of Michigan. The Piscataway are also seeking the return of those remains.
Ms. Savoy said the Piscataway have tried without success since the late 1970s to reach agreement for the return of the bones in Maryland's collection.
"It's been a sore issue with the people for many years," she said. "It seems we were the only group that weren't allowed to mourn our dead."
The Piscataway's demands and passage of the federal legislation in 1990 finally tipped the balance in the Indians' favor. "It looks as if some of our hopes and dreams are coming true with the passing of this bill," Ms. Savoy said. "It's a good start."