State Indian panel takes no action on tribe's request for recognition

More information needed, commission chair says

May 04, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs decided last night not to take up questions raised about an Indian tribe's petition for state recognition, once again leaving the tribe's status in bureaucratic limbo.

The decision to take no action clearly angered Mark G. Westerfield, an attorney representing the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy & Subtribes [PCCS].

"I think you have duties you are sworn to uphold as commission members, and that is to advance this process and not to sit here and do nothing," Westerfield told the commission.

Leland A. McGee, chairman of the state commission, replied that more information is needed before the tribe's petition can move forward.

The panel had tried to meet behind closed doors last month to discuss the petition filed by the PCCS. It canceled the session when not enough members showed up to conduct business.

The meeting had been called to discuss how to respond to questions posed by former state housing Secretary Patricia J. Payne in a March 1998 letter. She questioned how the panel arrived at its decision to recommend that the state recognize the PCCS.

The housing department, which oversees the commission and Indian recognition issues, is now headed by Secretary Raymond A. Skinner. It has held up action on the PCCS petition until the commission addresses Payne's questions.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening will make the final decision on recognition.

"Why can't you simply do tonight what you planned to do three weeks ago and prepare a response and send it to the secretary?" Westerfield asked.

McGee said the commission needs more information from a panel of experts that has studied the recognition issue before it can adequately respond to Payne's letter.

"The process is complex, it's frustrating and there's outside interest that creates even more frustration," McGee said, referring to the media and others who have followed the issue.

State officials have refused to release Payne's letter, saying it is "predecisional and deliberative" -- which would make it an exception to the state's public records act. They also defended the commission's attempts to meet behind closed doors.

McGee has said the panel needs to meet in private to protectthe confidentiality of Payne's letter. However, Mary R. Craig, an attorney for The Sun, said nothing in state law requires the letter be kept confidential.

"It's a discretionary denial," Craig said. "They are not required to deny access [to the letter], they are choosing to deny it. And that decision has come from the secretary [Skinner], since the governor has decided not to get involved in the decision-making process at this point."

She noted that the housing secretary serves at the pleasure of the governor, saying: "The governor could always overrule him and order him to release it, if the governor wanted the process to be open to the public."

Skinner did not return calls about the letter yesterday.

Ray Feldmann, a spokesman for Glendening, said the governor will not intervene, choosing to leave it to Skinner and the attorney general's office to deal with the public records and open meetings issues.

"This [recognition] will be coming before him for a decision at some point, and he believes it would be inappropriate to get involved in this particular matter at this particular time," Feldmann said.

The PCCS's tribal leader and the chief of a rival tribe have said they believe Payne's letter should be released and that the commission should meet in public to discuss how to respond to questions about the PCCS's petition .

The rival tribe, the Piscataway Indian Nation, headed by Chief Billy Red Wing Tayac, has fought the PCCS's efforts to gain recognition. Tayac's tribe also has an application pending for state recognition.

Tayac disputes the PCCS group's claims of Piscataway ancestry and says the group's real aim is to use state recognition as a steppingstone toward federal recognition, which is necessary to pursue casino gambling ventures.

PCCS Tribal Chairwoman Mervin Savoy said winning state recognition is a matter of pride and that the tribe has no interest in casino gambling. She said members have carefully documented their Piscataway ancestry.

The commission voted in August 1996 to recommend recognition of the PCCS after a team of researchers reviewed the tribe's claims and concluded it had satisfactorily traced its Piscataway origins.

Members of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs are McGee, Rose Powhatan, Norris C. Howard Sr., Bobby A. Little Bear, James M. Proctor, Doris Richardson, Gabrielle Tayac and Hankie Poafpybitty.

Proctor and Tayac are recused from dealing with matters relating to the petitions because Proctor is PCCS vice chairman and Tayac is a member of the the Piscataway Indian Nation and the niece of Billy Red Wing Tayac.

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