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Francis Gray: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Francis Gray.

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

My name is Francis Gray (Bear Clan), the eldest son of Charles and Regina Gray. I am currently the Tribal Chairman of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe.

Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?

I have yet to receive a Piscataway name. When I do, it will be determined by how I exhibit my character within our tribal community.

Where is your tribal community located?

Currently our main core is located within the southern region of Maryland in Charles, Prince Georges, St. Mary’s, and Calvert counties.

Where is your tribe originally from?

We are the people from where the waters blend. This encompasses all of the area on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay from our northern boundary of the Patapsco River watershed (just south of Baltimore) extending south and west to the Potomac River watershed (to include the Virginia, District of Columbia, and Maryland tributary creeks) and west to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.

What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?

January 9, 2012, the date of the official re-establishment of the Piscataway Conoy people with the State of Maryland. Some people like to refer it as recognition. However, we have always been here, so that day actually reflects when our people and the State of Maryland reinvigorated a relationship that began over 300 years ago. This historic relationship is well documented in Maryland's rich history.

We, the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, formally revived our official, duly elected Tribal Council as our governing body and reinstituted a government-to-government relationship with Maryland. Today the Piscataway Conoy people continue to embrace our culture and traditional values.

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How is your tribal government set up?

We have a Tribal Council made up of seven members elected by our people based upon a democratic process.

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Yes, we have traditional Clan Mothers and an Elders Council, as well.

How often does your Tribal Council meet?

The Tribal Council meets on a monthly basis.

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?

As a young man, I was instilled with strong principles while growing up in our community—knowing who you are and where you came from and making those important connections of culture and relationships that define the Piscataway Conoy people. While traveling up and down the East Coast with my family, I interacted with other tribal nations and took part in the Trail of Self-Determination and the Longest Walk during the 1970s, to name a few important events.

I also witnessed the removal of a cinderblock structure that was built over one of our ancestral ossuaries located on National Park land. Inside this cinderblock structure, visitors could look through windows and view the bones of my ancestors which lay upon the ground. Schoolchildren and tourists would come and view these remains. In 1976, our tribal leadership requested that the National Park Service tear down this structure, and our demand was granted. The National Park Service demolished the blockhouse in the summer of 1976, and my elders reinterred the remains back into the ossuary.

These life experiences bring me here today.

What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman? 

I am responsible for bringing about positive change and moving the tribe forward while at the same time preserving our history. It is my focus to ensure the betterment of the tribe by making certain that the development of cultural awareness is a priority and to sustain a strong governing structure for our tribe’s present and future.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.