On Tribal Recognition

Piscataway Conoy Chief Natalie Proctor and her husband Maurice at last spring’s Pow-Wow. From the Bay Weekly

I’d be among the first to admit that we’ve treated American Indians rather shabbily. I can’t defend that treatment. It is what it is. The question becomes whether reparative actions can be taken to help right a wrong. The question becomes even murkier when there is a significant question as to whether the people claiming the right to compensation for actions nearly three centuries old are even entitled to them.

This is the situation in Maryland.

The 28-foot wooden boat that has been sailing the Chesapeake Bay for the past 86 days trying to re-create Capt. John Smith’s 1608 voyage received a warm greeting from Maryland’s Indian tribes when it pulled into Calvert County yesterday.

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A traditionally dressed Indian warrior greeted the shallop’s 12 crew members and led them to the Eastern Woodland Indian Village at Jefferson Patterson Park in St. Leonard, which featured Native American demonstration booths, music and dancing. At a welcoming ceremony later, various tribes presented the crew with gifts of tobacco.

But representatives from the same tribes had a less-than-welcoming message for government officials who attended the ceremony: They said they were sick of not being officially recognized by the state even though they were “exploited” for state-endorsed events.

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The story goes that when the first settlers arrived in Maryland that they found a thriving native culture though the narrative presented by Charles Mann in the book 1491 seems much more convincing. Regardless, over time the Indian population disappeared. That portion that survived assimilated and disappeared.

The ultimate proof of Indian ancestry would rest in the decennial Census, however, Indians were not enumerated until 1890. When they were enumerated, Indians in Maryland did not break into triple digits until 1950, indeed on the 1890 Census 44 Marylanders identified themselves as Indian.

Currently there are two routes of recognition: state and federal. The federal route is arduous and few tribes from East of the Mississippi can qualify.

To achieve state recognition, though it doesn’t bring the federal goody-bag with it, tends to be more of a political than an ethnographic decision. I think anyone who has followed Virginia’s move to recognize some, I think, extinct tribes as extant today can agree that the decision was viewed as a harmless one, that cost the state nothing, and that made some people happy.

Maryland appaently has three groups which claim Indian ancestry: the Youghiogheny Shawnee Band, the Piscataway, and the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy. It is the latter group which is clamoring for recognition. A full history of their effots can be found here.

At the Smithsonian Folklife Festival last month my family and I visited the Roots of Virginia Culture paviliion. My family had arrived in Virginia by 1636 and my attachment to Virginia is something I’m trying to inculcate in my children. Though much to my surprise, I was astonished to find that English, Scots Irish, and German immigrants had such little impact on Virginia’s culture and folkways. Just a bunch of DWEMs, it would seem.

One of the exhibits was on Virginia tribes. It was sad. The apparel and dancing were distinctly from the Plains Indians. Their language hasn’t been spoken in over two hundred years. If they even exist they are affinity groups with less legitimacy than the Sons of Italy or the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

I suspect the feel-good O’Malley administration will approve the recognition of this group for the same reasons as George Allen approved the recognition in Virginia. That doesn’t make it any less a sham.

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