Md. recognition of Piscataways adds happy note to complicated history

Tribes continued fighting for official recognition through internal conflicts, gubernatorial rejections

January 16, 2012|By Childs Walker, The Baltimore Sun

INDIAN HEAD — — For as long as she can remember, Mervin Savoy has pressed the world to see her as she sees herself.

She refused to be bowed by the school officials who wouldn't let her write "American Indian" on forms identifying her race. She refused to be halted by governors who said her people's history was too thinly documented. Even a prolonged feud with fellow tribal leader Billy Tayac failed to dissuade her.

Last week, at age 68, Savoy let a contented smile flood her face as Gov. Martin O'Malley said the words she had waited so long to hear. The Piscataway Indians — the people she had called her own since she formed any concept of an identity — were Maryland's first indigenous tribe. Official reality had finally bent to her will.

A few feet away, Tayac felt similarly contented as he thought of his father, the medicine man who had steeped him in a fading history of Piscataway language and herbal lore, who had fought to be buried in a state park beside the bones of his ancestors.

"He was proud of who he was, and he never gave it up, never," says Tayac, who calls himself the 28th hereditary chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation, one of the tribe's two main factions along with Savoy's Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy. "He always said, 'This is our land. This is where God put us. Never relinquish it.'"

The Piscataways' history in Maryland is thousands of years old and as complicated as it is long.

It's a story of families, clinging for generations to an identity denied by the wider world. It's a story of rejection by powerful men, of waters muddied by bitter internal conflict. But finally, it's a story that has reached a happy juncture.

Savoy and Tayac stood together last week at the front of the room while O'Malley recognized the Piscataways, who number as many as 5,000, according to Catholic Church records, and who live mostly in Southern Maryland.

"No animosity, no infighting," says Savoy, the elected leader of the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy. "We came together as a people."

When the Piscataways first sought official recognition in the late 1990s, their internal schism helped derail the process. Tayac said publicly that Savoy's branch only wanted recognition as the launching point to build a lucrative casino. That perception was strengthened when the tribe accepted funds from developers who were thought to be interested in gambling sites.

Troubled by the potential connections to gambling, Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed a bill that would have hastened the recognition process. His successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., rejected the tribe's bid for recognition, saying the Piscataways had not adequately documented ties to Native Americans living in Maryland before 1790.

But O'Malley pledged to reconsider the issue and ultimately came to a different conclusion based on the submitted evidence. O'Malley was always sympathetic to the Piscataways' case, says Izzy Patoka, executive director for the Governor's Office of Community Initiatives.

"There was always a perception that the effort was related to gaming, and true or not, they could not shake it," says Patoka, who managed the issue for the governor. "But I never saw that as a priority for this community. It's more a matter of pride."

The Piscataways renounced their right to open casinos in negotiating for recognition. But the designation will unlock $17 million in federal funds for education, housing and public health, and could make Piscataway contractors eligible for state and federal minority business deals.

The tribe is still pursuing federal recognition, an effort Savoy hopes will be aided by O'Malley's decision. The Piscataways are on a list for "technical assistance," a precursor to consideration by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The process requires exhaustive documentation, and the bureau has rarely granted recognition to new tribes in recent years.

Savoy scoffs at the idea that her tribe is motivated by financial rewards. "I don't know why people think that if you're an Indian, you get all these free things from the government," she says, noting the pervasive poverty and hopelessness on many reservations.

For her, the struggle always came back to identity.

"A reporter once asked me what it felt like to be an Indian," Savoy says, laughing. "You might as well ask me what it feels like to be a woman. I don't know; I've never been anything else."

Savoy didn't see anything unusual in the way her grandparents lived off the land. Her grandmother picked mint and peach leaves to flavor food. For a headache, she prescribed bark from a weeping willow tree. For a bee sting, she rubbed the irritated skin with three types of grass.

"All of these things, you could just walk out to the yard and get," Savoy says.

Her family used knives with handles made of deer antlers and hooves. They owned handmade eel traps. Every day, it seemed, a grandparent or great-grandparent told some story of the deep past.

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