WALDORF — — Men, women and children of the Piscataway and other Mid-Atlantic Native American tribes danced and sang to the beat of heavy drums under a bright sun here Saturday, decked out in traditional headdresses, beadwork and stitching.
They had much to celebrate, they said.
The event was the Southern Maryland tribe's 30th annual Native American Festival and Pow Wow, but their first as a recognized, distinct people in the eyes of the state. That recognition of a centuries-old reality was only made official when Gov. Martin O'Malley issued an executive order recognizing the tribe's distinct history in January.
"We're just as proud as can be. We just kept perseverance until we got it done," said Maurice Proctor, a member of the tribal council of the Cedarville branch of Piscataway who lives in Brandywine, a part of what the tribe considers its ancestral lands. "We enjoy showing our culture, our history, so everyone in the world will know us, know we're still alive, know we're still here."
The tribe, which comprises about 2,000 registered members and thousands more unregistered, most in Southern Maryland, had lobbied governors of the state for decades to recognize their existence, and their efforts fell flat. But after the state Commission on Indian Affairs approved the documentation of their history in December, the Piscataway nation and confederacy finally won its fight.
Aside from the symbolic importance, the recognition gives the tribe access to millions of dollars in federal funding for education, housing, public health and other programs, the governor's office said earlier this year. The tribe also renounced plans to open a casino or other gambling venues, a source of revenue for native tribes in other states and a point of concern raised in previous discussions about recognition in years past.
On Saturday, the tribe's new status was mentioned time after time in congratulatory remarks from speakers, including Thomas V. Mike Miller, president of the Maryland Senate, and Del. James Proctor, who is Maurice Proctor's cousin and who introduced unsuccessful legislation in the past to grant the tribe recognition.
"Perseverance is always the right way to go, and that perseverance is king," said Delegate Proctor, whose district includes parts of Southern Maryland. "You just have to keep plugging away."
In the large crowd, which ringed a wide dancing circle where traditionally dressed dancers bounced to drums, people from multiple regional tribes cheered the Piscataway's recognition and the message of tribal unity offered by E. Keith Colston, administrator of the state Indian Affairs Commission.
"There were many hands that were involved," Colston said of the long recognition effort. "That's what you see in this arena."
Desiree Shelley, a 26-year-old member of the Monacan tribe in Virginia who lives in Waverly in Baltimore, was dressed in a brightly colored dress stitched with intricate patterns and draped in metal cones that chimed together as she danced.
Her tribe received state recognition two years ago. She was at the powwow, she said, to help celebrate the Piscataway tribe's earning state recognition as well, but also to show solidarity in a new battle the Monacan and Piscataway both find themselves in — that of winning federal recognition, which would give the tribes access to more funding and services and provide an additional measure of governmental sovereignty.
"Because we're in that same struggle, it's really important for us all to support each other," said Shelley, the former president of the American Indian Student Union at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Louis Campbell, a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina who grew up in Bowie and now lives in the Eastwood neighborhood of Baltimore, agreed. Campbell, the event's lead dancer, teaches others about Native American culture as cultural director at Native American LifeLines and as a native beadwork instructor at the Baltimore American Indian Center, both in Baltimore.
Dressed in an intricately designed eagle-feather headdress, Campbell said events like the powwow help people with native ancestry and those without it get a more accurate sense of native culture — apart from often inaccurate popular-culture portrayals.
"It just opens their eyes, besides watching the false stuff on TV," Campbell said.
Natalie Proctor, the Piscataway's tribal chairwoman and Maurice Proctor's wife, said she grew up in Clinton with her family's Piscataway culture playing a major part in her life. She has never known anything different.
She still remembers putting up the sign for the tribe's very first powwow 30 years ago, and people responding with confusion.
"There was just absolutely no knowledge that Maryland still had its native people," she said.
Over the years, through her and others' efforts, that has changed, and the state's recognition of the tribe has helped, she said.
But federal recognition is still not there, she said, and the fight isn't over.
"We don't want people to think once we get the recognition, that's it," she said.