After 360 years of European settlement, disease, warfare, racism and intermarriage, it may seem improbable that anyone could still stake a legitimate claim to being an indigenous Maryland Indian.
That there are three distinct groups -- Piscataway, Nanticoke and Shawnee -- making impassioned pleas for the release of a forlorn collection of human bones locked away in Annapolis with the state's archaeological treasures, would seem flatly impossible.
Yet that is precisely the reality that has kept the state's chief archaeologist, Richard Hughes, and J. Rodney Little's office of Historical and Cultural Programs tied to a bureaucratic stake for nearly two years -- at the expense, Mr. Hughes says, of "real archaeology."
They have spent that long trying to craft a set of regulations that would heed the Indians' pleas, while answering the legislature's 1992 directive to provide for scientific study "which will be of benefit to Maryland."
This spring, they thought they had at last struck a balance. The rules they proposed had input from, and the grudging support of, professional archaeologists, the state Commission for Indian Affairs and Mervin A. Savoy, chairwoman of the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy, one of three Piscataway groups in southern Maryland.
Most importantly, they thought, the proposal would at least begin the return of Indian remains to Indian people for reburial.
The state's vaults hold the bones and bone fragments of perhaps 80 Native Americans, some hundreds, others thousands years old, recovered over the years from 16 sites. With increasing effect in recent years, Indians have been pressing for their return, while scientists have argued that reburial would deny everyone the knowledge that modern science could reveal about genetic and migratory patterns, health, diet and the daily lives of individuals.
The state's proposed regulations called for an inventory of the collection, which could help establish links to modern people, and perhaps the grounds for their return. Where such ties could not be established, the remains would be preserved in "an appropriate place of repose," where they would remain available for more detailed study.
But the compromise ran up on the rocks last month in Sen. Paula C. Hollinger's joint administrative review committee, impaled on
the very jealousies and suspicions it sought to bridge.
Senator Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat, listened with rapt attention to Indians opposed to regulations that allow the state to withhold some remains for study. Chief Sewell Fitzhugh, of the Nause-Waiwash Nanticokes, pleaded eloquently for the state to "put my people back; put all Indian people back."
After learning that some Indian groups -- including Billy Red Wing Tayac, chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation Inc. -- had not been party to the process, Senator Hollinger cut short the hearing. She told Mr. Little to start again, this time bringing everyone into the talks.
"You should be working for inclusion, not exclusion," she told him. "You've got to work out these issues."
Mr. Little and Mr. Hughes were stunned. So was Ms. Savoy, who favors the regulations, but did not get to testify. So were more than a half-dozen scientists who had waited in vain for four hours to argue in favor of the regulations, including Dr. Douglas W. Owsley of the Smithsonian Institution, one of the nation's top forensic anthropologists.
Publicly, Mr. Little and Mr. Hughes were ready to start over. But privately they seemed exasperated, and doubtful they could ever forge a process for returning remains that everyone -- Indians, archaeologists and the state's lawyers -- will agree on.
"There are some groups who we probably should have touched bases with," Mr. Little said, drawing deeply on a cigarette. "And we certainly will keep an open mind. But we have heard nothing tonight that we have not wrestled with . . . for two years."
Senator Hollinger acknowledged there might be no solution. "But it's much better to say you involved people and couldn't come to TC a resolution, than that you didn't," she said.
Clearly, it was a political blunder for Mr. Little's office not to draw Mr. Tayac into the process. Of all Maryland Indian leaders, he may have the greatest personal stake in the repatriation issue.
First, the modern Piscataways are thought quite likely to get their ancestors back. They are generally acknowledged to have the best chance to document links to some of the native people whose bones lie in the state's collection. Such evidence of family or "cultural affiliation" is key to reclaiming remains under state and federal law.
And second, it should have been obvious that Mr. Tayac would see Ms. Savoy's role in helping the state draft the regulations as an affront to his claim to tribal leadership.
Southern Maryland's Piscataway community has been split and feuding over its leadership since the 1978 death of Turkey Tayac, the last "tayac," or leader acknowledged by most Piscataways.