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Piscataway Conoy tribe loses bid for state recognition

BALTIMORE - Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich Jr. on Sept. 24 denied the petition for state recognition by an Indian group known as the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes. The governor's statement said the group failed to prove its descendance from the ancient Piscataway tribe.

Piscataway Conoy Chairwoman Mervin Savoy issued a statement saying her group would continue to pursue its right to be recognized as descendants of the indigenous people of Maryland.

The Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs voted in 1996 to recommend state recognition for the Piscataway Conoy group, but former Governor Parris Glendening did not act on the matter. Glendening, who opposed legalizing gambling in Maryland, feared that recognizing the tribe might be seen as a green light to casino interests. Savoy's group had received financial support in the mid-1990s from developers Richard A. Swirnow and Mark R. Vogel.

Leaders of both the Piscataway Conoy and a rival faction, the Piscataway Indian Nation, testified in Annapolis last March about state legislation to require the governor to respond quickly to recognition applications. At that time the Piscataway Conoy were hopeful that Ehrlich, who took office in January, would finally recognize the tribe.

Thomas Brown, a sociology professor who has done research on Piscataway genealogy and history, does not believe the group meets recognition criteria because it has not established a continuously separate racial identity.

"Part of the kinds of claims these groups make - Piscataways, Lumbees, and many others - is that they have always been separate from the African-American community," Brown says. "That is part of their claim to being Indian, essentially not being black ... But when you go back and look at the records, you can see that this separateness develops during the Jim Crow period, after the Civil War. If you look at the time period before the Civil War, you see extensive intermarriage within the black community. And no sense of community distinction."

Brown has published a paper on the Internet which recounts the Piscataway tribe's modern revival. The Piscataway-Conoy Indians Inc. was incorporated in 1974 by Billy Tayac, an American Indian Movement activist. Tayac's father, Turkey Tayac (born Phillip Sheridan Proctor) had started in the 1930s to re-establish a Piscataway identity among the Wesort community of southeastern Maryland. Billy Tayac successfully got funding and public recognition for the tribe during the 1970s. The Piscataway group was able to establish Maryland's first Commission on Indian Affairs in 1976, chaired by the tribe's executive director, Hugh Proctor.

Perhaps because the state's Indian Affairs commission is only recently established, Maryland has very rigorous standards for acknowledgment, modeled on the federal recognition regulations. Brown says only a few states have a process where they research the applications in a way that the federal government does.

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After Chief Turkey's death in 1978, the Piscataways split into three factions: the Piscataway Indian Nation (led by Billy Tayac), the Maryland Indian Heritage Society (headed by Hugh Proctor), and the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes (chaired by Mervin Savoy).

Tayac has remained a vocal opponent of the Piscataway Conoy since the breakup 25 years ago. He had no comment about the governor's recent decision other than to say "That's not us, it's a different group." The Piscataway Indian Nation also has an application before the state's Indian Affairs commission, which has not yet been considered.

Phillip Proctor, vice-chair of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, spoke to Indian Country Today about the situation. Proctor says he is a Piscataway tribal member who is not allied with any particular faction. He says the infighting of the different groups has hurt their quest for recognition. Although the Maryland Indian Heritage Society and the Piscataway Conoy groups formed a joint council, they still kept their own councils. Proctor says the leaders were shortsighted.

"People in the past thought we're together for this particular cause - recognition. Once we receive that, we'll go our separate ways. That's wishful thinking. They didn't understand that with Indian status they would never ever be totally separate."

He contrasted the Piscataway's actions with those of Connecticut's Paucatuck and Eastern Pequot groups. The Eastern Pequot tribe had split along racial lines in the 1970s, and for many years the two factions were bitterly opposed to each other, each pursuing its own federal recognition petition. However, in June 2002 the BIA gave a positive final determination of recognition to the Historical Eastern Pequot tribe, re-uniting the two groups.

"They were able to get delegates and senators on their side and bring the two parties to the table to get some of these issues resolved," Proctor says. "We tried that and it didn't work."

Proctor, who is 36 years old, says the Piscataway elders are so filled with animosity towards the other factions that the tribe can't move forward. "If we could just get to the table, collectively, with some new voices and vision, we could work it out."

He said his dream is to be seen as an American Indian. "What I want is to be able to go to the commission that I served on for the last three years, and for them to recognize me as an indigenous person in Maryland. Not Phillip Proctor, the person on the Indian Commission who is seeking recognition."