Panel finds its voice, hears from its critics

Cause: The state commission on Indian affairs emerges from obscurity as it presses for change.

October 16, 2001|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

For most of its nearly 30-year history, the state commission that advocates for American Indians in Maryland was an obscure body that rarely drew attention.

Not anymore.

Resolutions to do away with Columbus Day and eliminate the use of Indian-themed names and mascots for school sports teams have put the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs squarely on the media map.

Radio talk-show hosts and conservative newspaper columnists have had a field day with what they portray as political correctness run amok. The switchboards light up with angry callers; letter writers sharpen their pens.

Meanwhile, Gov. Parris N. Glendening's administration has been left in the unusual position of disavowing the actions of a commission whose members the governor appoints.

The commission's most outspoken member, Richard Regan, is a Lumbee Cheraw Indian from Montgomery County. He says he can't disagree with those who describe him as overzealous. But, he says, his actions serve a purpose.

"A year ago, nobody ever heard of the commission," he said. "Now, we're players. We're pulling the issues forward. People know who we are now."

Regan, an equal opportunity manager with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, led the school mascot and Columbus Day issues. In August, he persuaded the Montgomery County School Board - which oversees the state's largest school system - to ban the use of Indian team names and mascots. He's trying to persuade other Maryland school systems to follow suit.

This month, he got the commission to approve a resolution that calls for the elimination of Columbus Day as a holiday - a mostly symbolic gesture. It had been disavowed in advance by the Glendening administration.

Earlier, state officials had disavowed a commission resolution calling for a boycott of 64 sponsors of the Germantown Athletic Club because some of its teams use names such as Indians and Braves.

Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Glendening, said the governor strongly disapproves of the commission's recent actions.

"He believes that, especially in the times we face right now, this commission would do far better to focus on the specific tasks that they are assigned, which would be far more productive and meaningful in advancing the well-being of Maryland's Native American communities," Morrill said.

The administration sent commissioners a letter last week saying that actions such as the Columbus Day resolution are "divisive" and run counter to longstanding state policy. In future, the letter warned, the administration might require that any proposals be reviewed and approved before commission action.

The nine-member commission's charter is to pursue projects that further the "cultural, educational, economic and social development of Maryland's diverse Indian communities," and to promote awareness of contributions Indians have made to life in the state. Several states have similar commissions.

The Maryland panel also reviews petitions from Native American groups seeking state recognition, and works on the transfer of Indian remains to tribal groups.

Some members say the governor bears some responsibility for the commission's recent shift of focus to more divisive causes.

They note that one of the panel's main objectives is to work for state recognition of indigenous tribes. But, they complain, a petition to recognize the Piscataway-Conoys of Southern Maryland has languished without action for five years since the commission sent it to administration officials.

No tribal groups that are indigenous to Maryland have state or federal recognition.

"We've sat quietly for five years asking for things to be done, and nothing happens," said Julia A. Pierce, a commission member and lawyer with the U.S. Indian Health Service in Rockville. "It's the squeaky-wheel-gets-the-oil theory: Maybe if we make more noise, somebody will pay attention."

Another member, Philip CaVeno Proctor of Waldorf, says that inaction on the petition for tribal recognition left commissioners frustrated and searching for other issues to tackle. "The governor doesn't pay us any mind right now," said Proctor, a fire department investigator in Washington. "What do we have to lose?"

The recognition petition has been stuck on the desk of Raymond A. Skinner, the state housing secretary, who has given no indication of when he intends to forward it to the governor for review and possible approval.

The petition is with Skinner because the Indian affairs commission falls under the housing department's jurisdiction. The petition first went to Skinner's predecessor in 1996; Skinner has held the post since 1998.

Asked why there has been no action on the petition, Edward J. McDonough, a department spokesman, said: "This is a very complex issue. We want to make sure we ... get it right."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.