Rival groups, each claiming to be descended from the same Maryland Indian tribe, renewed an old dispute yesterday over which, if either, should rightfully become the first Indian nation recognized by the state.
"We only ask that you give us something you took from us - our identity as native people," Mervin Savoy, chairwoman of the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes, said during a hearing in Annapolis before the House Health and Government Operations Committee.
A petition filed by the confederacy, which claims as many as 3,500 members in Southern Maryland, is pending in the office of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. Savoy said an approval would restore the stature of the descendants of a people whose history of farming, fishing and intermarriages spans more than 5,000 years, easily predating the arrival of the English in the 17th century.
But Billy Tayac, chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation, testified that his group is the legitimate heir to the Piscataway name. He said Savoy's application intends to capitalize on a law permitting federally recognized tribes to negotiate with states for legalized casinos. Savoy's group is seeking federal acknowledgment while it pursues recognition from the state.
"Only God can make an Indian," Tayac said. "But in the state of Maryland, the gambling interests are playing God."
In an interview, Savoy said gambling was a "nonissue" and that her group had initially applied for recognition as a matter of pride in 1978 - long before scores of tribes began using gambling as an economic tool. While gambling isn't the intent of her group's effort, she said, it would be inappropriate to rule it out.
"I can't promise anything," she said after the hearing. "I can't promise that tomorrow I'm not going to walk across the street and get hit by a bus."
For years, the Piscataway Conoy compiled genealogical data, newspaper clippings and oral histories to demonstrate a strong blood link to the ancient tribe. The Department of Housing and Community Development studied the group's latest application for eight years before sending its recommendation to Ehrlich this month. Neither the department nor the governor's office will disclose what the recommendation says.
State recognition can be useful in obtaining federal approval, but it is not mandatory.
Thomas Brown, a Lamar University sociology professor, said the Piscataway Conoy has a tough road ahead. Brown, conducting a case study of the group, contends that the evidence shows that they are likely a mix of Caucasian and African-American, with American Indian blood. "The problem is that some Indian blood alone does not qualify you," Brown said.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who left office in January, had declined to help the group. An outspoken slots foe, Glendening said he feared that helping the recognition process for American Indians could expand gambling opportunities in the state.
In May, Glendening vetoed a bill that would have required a governor to act within 120 days of receiving tribal recognition applications. Yesterday's hearing was on an identical bill designed to aid groups - such as the Piscataway Conoy, Piscataway Indian Nation and others - that have seen their applications languish. The bill also would require that the department send its recommendation to the governor within 60 days.
Sewell E. Fitzhugh, chief of the Eastern Shore-based Nause Waiwash Band of Indians, said that, in its delays, Maryland is denying tribes their due. "We are Maryland's forgotten people," Fitzhugh testified. "I want my people to stay here. I want our culture to stay intact. That's what this is all about."
Fitzhugh said his group is compiling a petition for recognition by the state. He testified in favor of the bill requiring a speedier recognition procedure.
Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat and sponsor of the bill, said critics of Savoy's application have seized on gambling to deny her rights.
Testifying at the hearing, Branch noted an opinion last year from the state attorney general's office on the difficulty that any newly recognized Maryland tribe would have establishing a casino. Before considering gambling, a tribe would have to be recognized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which requires applicants to prove themselves as a distinct community that has maintained continuous influence over its members.
Where Western tribes have succeeded in winning permission for casinos on their reservations, the last Maryland reservation was terminated by the state in the late 1700s.