For the Piscataway, a long, troubled road to recognition

Official stonewalling and tribal rivalry guaranteed Maryland's native people would not get into the gambling business

January 14, 2012|Dan Rodricks

There's a long back-story to Maryland's official recognition of the Piscataway as a distinct tribe of Native American people, and it's not pretty. Last week's announcement of the long-sought declaration in Annapolis marked an end to both the state's stubborn refusal to recognize any native tribe — largely to stop its members from opening a casino here — and to a dispute between Piscataway groups that got so bitter, they even bickered over bones.

In the 1990s, Maryland and other states went through the process of removing native bones from museums and offering them for reburial. At one point, chief archeologist Richard Hughes wanted to return the bones of 33 people from the state's collection, but he discovered that two groups claimed to be descendants of the Piscataway. And they both wanted the remains.

"The Indians say, 'Return them to us.' And I say, 'Well, who's us?' And they immediately break down into their political groupings," Mr. Hughes told a reporter. "I can't resolve that."

The two groups were the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes (PCCS) and the Piscataway Indian Nation. They both sought official recognition by the state, but the two groups fought each other every step of the process, which is one of the reasons it went on for so long. The leader of the Piscataway Indian Nation publicly questioned the PCCS' authenticity and, more pointedly, its motives.

Two decades ago, when Native American groups in other states started taking advantage of federal laws that gave them special privileges in developing casinos, the PCCS entered into a plan to build a gambling resort in Southern Maryland. It was a huge plan — one or more casinos and hotels, a theme park, a marina, thoroughbred and trotter horse racing, and a native history museum.

Reception was cool, to say the least. The state's horse-racing industry didn't want the competition; it was struggling, trying to stay afloat with off-track-betting parlors. Revenues from the state lottery had leveled off. Gov. William Donald Schaefer had just appointed a task force to study gambling. His successor, Parris Glendening, was adamantly opposed to the legalization of slot machines. So the Piscataway groups' request for official recognition went nowhere.

Even if the state had recognized the tribe, it wasn't a given that the Piscatway could develop a casino. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs had to recognize the tribe, too, and the Piscataway, with no tribal reservation in Maryland, would have to purchase property and seek approval from both the governor and the feds to use it for a casino.

So, it was complicated. The likelihood of the Piscataway getting federal approval was considered remote by those familiar with the process, and the rivalry between the native groups only served to affirm that prediction. But who's to say what might have happened had there been a united front?

In 2002, Mr. Glendening vetoed legislation that would have accelerated the tribal recognition process. "The specter of expanded gambling opportunities in Maryland continues to loom over this issue," he said. "I don't want to do anything that even implies we are receptive [to slots]."

The PCCS was unhappy with the veto. So were members of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs. One said the veto was an affront to the descendants of Native Americans; another, Richard Regan, said of Mr. Glendening: "This governor will go down in the history of Maryland as doing less for Indian people than any governor in the state's history."

On the other hand, Billy Red Wing Tayac, chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation, applauded the veto, saying the PCCS had made bogus ancestry claims to get the state recognition that would have helped secure the federal approval necessary for a casino. "Governor Glendening is a wise man," Mr. Tayac told a Sun reporter. "He saw through the scheme."

Mr. Glendening's successor, Robert L. Ehrlich, didn't recognize the Piscataway, either.

So, while the journey to Gov. Martin O'Malley's executive order — recognition of both the PCCS and Billy Tayac's group, and agreement that they won't try to get into the gambling business — has been rough, peace, at last, appears to be at hand.

Of course, slots are legal now, and Maryland will have casinos. But they won't be owned and operated by the Piscataway. They squabbled while being stonewalled by the state, and the gambling boat sailed off without them.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM. His email is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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