Indian tribal claim raises questions of identity, intentions

Piscataway groups seeking recognition

April 02, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

Almost four years after a Maryland Indian tribe asked the state for recognition, the tribe's petition appears close to reaching Gov. Parris N. Glendening for a decision -- stirring questions about the identity of its members and their intentions.

Leaders of the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes (PCCS) say state recognition is a long overdue matter of pride and would benefit members by allowing them to tap federal grants for educational, cultural and economic development programs.

But a competing tribal group, the Piscataway Indian Nation, contends the PCCS is angling for casino gambling and is pursuing state recognition as a step toward that goal.

"It isn't about being red, it's about green," said Billy Red Wing Tayac of Prince George's County, chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation. "That [state recognition] is a steppingstone toward federal recognition. Their whole purpose is gambling. They want that money."

PCCS Chairwoman Mervin Savoy of Charles County maintains the tribe has no interest in trying to bring casino gambling to Maryland. She notes that federal recognition, which the tribe also is pursuing, is separate from state recognition, and only federal recognition can give the tribe the ability to open a casino.

"The casino issue is a red herring," Savoy said.

However, she did not rule out the tribe's pursuing a casino venture in the future. And the possibility of a lucrative casino has attracted developers to back the PCCS' cause, helping pay for extensive research to establish its claims.

The Piscataway Indian Nation, which also has filed for state recognition, contends Savoy and others in PCCS are falsely claiming Piscataway ancestry.

However, a panel of experts appointed by the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs has reviewed the PCCS' claims and judged them valid. The commission voted in August 1996 to recommend that the tribe be recognized by the state. Since then, the tribe's petition has languished in the state bureaucracy.

A PCCS attorney says state officials are deliberately stalling action on the tribe's petition and has asked them to explain its status at an Indian commission meeting Monday in Crownsville. Commission Chairman Leland McGee said he did not know if the commission would take action on the petition at the meeting.

No word from governor

Glendening, who has steadfastly opposed casino gambling in Maryland, won't say whether he will sign an executive order to recognize the PCCS once the tribe's petition reaches his desk.

"He doesn't want to prejudge whatever that proposal may be by talking about it now," said Ray Feldmann, the governor's spokesman. "He would prefer not to comment until he has time to actually review and discuss what comes before him."

J. Rodney Little -- an official with the state housing department, which oversees the Indian commission -- said he expects the tribe's petition to be ready to go to Glendening within the next few weeks.

Little said he has talked recently to Glendening about the recognition issue. "I know firsthand that he has not made up his mind on it," Little said. "I think it's pretty clear he's going to make a decision based on the merits of the petition."

Gambling unlikely

He said prospects for casino gambling are "highly unlikely" because the PCCS would have to be recognized by the federal government to take advantage of a federal law that allows commercial gambling on tribal lands.

Little said he does not believe the PCCS or any other tribe from Maryland could meet the legal requirements to qualify for federal recognition. The major obstacle is a federal requirement that a tribe have a governing body that "has been the controlling body for the group from before 1790 on," he said.

Little said that standard would be almost impossible to meet because the last remnants of the Piscataways that maintained a governing body left Maryland in 1756. The Indians that remained after that time were substantially assimilated into European culture, he said.

Help from developers

Still, the possibility of casinos has drawn funds from developers to help the PCCS document its case for recognition.

Savoy acknowledged that a Baltimore developer, Richard A. Swirnow, put money into the tribe's recognition efforts for a time. She would not disclose how much the tribe was paid or the terms of their arrangement.

Lewis A. Rivlin -- a Washington, D.C., attorney who worked with the tribe from 1993 until a falling-out in mid-1996 -- said he brought Swirnow to the tribe as a financial backer for the recognition efforts.

Rivlin said Swirnow and a business partner put several thousand dollars a month into the PCCS' recognition efforts over the course of about a year, in the mid-1990s. Swirnow's group wanted to be the developer on any projects the tribe launched, Rivlin said.

Rivlin said the tribe's deal with the Swirnow group was similar to his own deal with it.

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