Maryland recognition of Accohannock tribe sparks debate within community of Native Americans

When he needed to clear his head as a boy, Clarence Lone Wolf Tyler would head to the western shore of Smith Island to look for Indian arrowheads.

Tyler, a Native American of the Accohannock tribe, learned the technique from his father: look in the clumps of roots of the marsh reeds after a high tide. The grass died off from exposure to saltwater, but the roots remained intact.

For centuries, Tyler says, his people concealed their native identity in Maryland, hiding in plain sight from the white man, to avoid the discrimination and segregation inflicted on African-Americans.

Tyler’s family took a crab boat to secret native meetings, he says, where they invoked the creator and learned native ways.

Tyler, now the 64-year-old chief of the Accohannock, says they are ready to emerge from the shadows. In December, the 81-member Accohannock became the third Native American tribe in Maryland to be recognized by the state.

"It didn't sink in right away,” said Mike Hinman, 76, the tribe’s historian and chairman. “We've had so many disappointments."

But not everyone is celebrating. Other Native Americans are questioning the Accohannocks’ historical claims.

It would have been impossible, they say, for an entire tribe to keep its identity secret in a town as small as Crisfield. Even if the members do have native blood, they say, the fact that they concealed their heritage means they haven’t paid their dues — and shouldn’t be recognized by the state.

Norris Howard, a Pocomoke Indian, is an outspoken critic of Accohannock recognition.

“When a group gets recognized, it’s going to be put in textbooks, it’s going to be put in lesson plans for the curriculum of the public schools,” he said. “To me, that’s a lie.”

Reminders of the Eastern Shore’s Indian past come in fragments: road signs bearing names such as Nanticoke and Pocomoke City, arrowheads in the marsh reeds.

Ancient arrowheads cover the shelves in Tyler’s home in Princess Anne. Outside, a flag waves with a Native American emblazoned on the stars and stripes. Some of his neighbors don’t like it, Tyler says, but he’s quick to point out the image doesn’t cover the stars.

The Accohannock join two other tribes recognized by the state: The Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway Conoy Tribe.

Unlike federal recognition, state recognition does not bring specific benefits, but might help win donations and grants. It does not confer rights to property, or to operate casinos.

Tribes seeking recognition file a petition containing members’ genealogies.An advisory committee reviews the data and makes a recommendation to the governor.

The Accohannock first sought recognition in 2010. The committee, which includes members of native heritage, voted against forwarding it to then-Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Tribal leaders tried again last year, using a genealogy compiled using ancestry.com. Tyler says he traced his family line back to the Occohannock nation in Virginia.

This time, the committee agreed.

“They had to fight to prove that this is their land,” said committee member Diana Purnell, a Worcester County commissioner who is part Native American. “And they did it. They absolutely did it.”

Gov. Larry Hogan signed an executive order in December. State Sen. Jim Mathias Jr., who has worked with the Accohannock, called it a “proud day” for the Eastern Shore.

“Quite frankly the history, to me, was solid,” the Worcester County Democrat said.

Mathias says he looks forward to working with the tribe to obtain whatever state grants they might be eligible to receive.

Hinman hopes recognition will enable the tribe to receive additional money and support.

“That’s what we survive on — donations and grants,” he said. He says the tribe plans to apply for federal recognition.

The tribe’s critics consider the state recognition an affront.

On a clear day in January, Norris Howard lumbered into the Crisfield public library with his son, Buddy, carting stacks of books and thick binders bearing the title “Accohannock debacle.”

For as long as the Accohannock has pursued recognition, Norris Howard has fought to prevent it.

Like Hinman, Tyler and some other members of the Accohannock tribe, Howard, 79, grew up in the Crisfield area. He is paramount chief of the Pocomoke Indian Nation — a tribe that has not sought state recognition.

He says his native identity was always known to those in Crisfield — and he experienced discrimination because of it.

Being native in Crisfield, Howard says, meant being put in the back, facing racism and feeling powerless to fight it, being reluctant to speak up for fear of retribution.

Those life experiences have become part of his heritage.

“It wasn’t ‘hidden in plain sight’ — which is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said.

Tyler insists the Accohannock did conceal their native ties for generations, a strategy he says was advocated by clan mothers, who believed members should intermarry with Europeans, then allow their native heritage to re-emerge at a later time.

Howard is deeply skeptical.

“You couldn’t hide a mouse in Crisfield,” he said.

In a community as isolated as Crisfield, anthropologist Helen Rountree says, folks know each other’s business. This was even more true before televisions and telephones.

Rountree, a retired professor at Old Dominion University, has studied the Indians of the Eastern Shore. The Accohannock cited her research in their petition.

Rountree, who is not an Indian, has investigated native claims in Virginia. Of the cases she has researched, she says, about half have been legitimate.

She has reviewed a redacted copy of the Accohannock petition. She is skeptical.

During the Jim Crow era, many Native Americans sought recognition as Indians rather than be lumped in with whites or African-Americans. Rountree looks for evidence of such efforts in draft records and marriage documents.

If the Accohannock actively concealed their identity in order to “pass” as white, she said, “then they have not paid their dues — assuming that there’s really some Indian there.”

During times of segregation, Rountree says, some tribes started their own churches and schools. The Accohannock, she says, did not.

To Rountree, that’s a red flag.

“People who actually behave as a tribe have many more relationships with one another than with outsiders,” she said. “And the outsiders are going to notice that kind of thing.”

Steve Russell, a Cherokee who writes for the Indian Country Media Network, has frequently criticized people he considers to be faux Indians. He once wrote that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Massachussetts Democrat who has claimed Indian native heritage, “bless her heart, is like virtually every white person born in Oklahoma in believing she had an Indian ancestor ...”

He said his concerns about tribal claims is largely practical. When tribes receive federal recognition, they increase competition for limited federal resources. Recognition of “every faux Indian social club,” he said, could deprive legitimate groups of the resources to which they’re entitled.

Russell has not reviewed the Accohannock petition. But he said he can’t “picture a tribal organization denying its own existence,” and knows of “no Indian tribe that was a secret society.”

“I do think most Indians, upon being persuaded that a people denied their identity for a hundred years or so, would object to allowing them to re-enter the world of Indian nations,” he said.

“Should someone have to ‘deserve’ being Indian? No, not as an individual. But as a tribe? That’s different.”

Then there’s the matter of geography.

Joe Paden gives historical tours of Crisfield, regaling visitors with stories from the days when the southernmost city in Maryland was what he calls a “lawless boomtown.” That was back in the late 1800s, when Crisfield was the self-styled Seafood Capital of the World — when the Pennsylvania Railroad carried oysters, blue crabs and terrapins from the city dock to Maryland and the rest of the United States.

Paden, 44, said he first learned of the Accohannock after Hinman approached him about collaborating on a project together. He was dubious: the native people in the area now known as Crisfield were called Annamessex, he says, not Accohannock.

In their petition, the Accohannock say they were also known as the Annamessex, the name of a nearby river. But Rountree, whose work is cited extensively in the petition, disputes this.

“The Accohannock and the Annamessex in the 17th century were two entirely different sets of people,” she said. “They did not cross over.”

Paden called Hinman’s research a “mix of speculation, conjecture and possibilities.” He compiled a 19-page report detailing what he considered problems with the Accohannock petition and sent it to Hogan and lawmakers in the hope of convincing the state to abandon recognition.

He’s disappointed the Maryland review commission did not agree.

Others see recognition as helping a native community.

Kerry Hawk Lessard is executive director of Native American Lifelines in Baltimore. The group, which receives federal Urban Indian Health Program funds, offers free dental care, behavioral health services and patient advocacy to the area’s Indians.

“Receiving the state recognition is really going to help the Accohannock people,” Hawk Lessard said. Even with just state recognition, she says, Accohannock tribe members will now be entitled to receive such care from Native American Lifelines.

Hawk Lessard said she was familiar with questions about the Accohannocks’ authenticity, but is uncomfortable with Native Americans criticizing each other’s legitimacy.

“If anyone is trying to make the claim that they are more Indian than other people, that’s just an act of lateral violence,” she said. Particularly on the East Coast, she said, centuries of intermarriage means people with native blood — herself included — might not conform to people’s ideas of what a Native American looks like.

Russell said the process of government recognition is problematic, given the nation’s historic mistreatment of native people.

“The story of the settlement of the Americas is one of theft and homicide,” he wrote in an email. “Now the perpetrators get to decide who the survivors are.”

“Parse that in terms of morality. It quickly gets much harder than parsing it in terms of law.”

On a recent weekday, a few Accohannock tribe members sat in Clarence Tyler’s living room, each wearing subtle emblems of their Indian culture: beaded earrings, suede moccasins.

At what should be a time of celebration for the tribe, the group was downcast. Their future is now uncertain, they say, because the state recognition has come with a rift among tribal leaders.

Since recognition, Tyler says, Hinman, the tribe historian, has made decisions that should have been made by the full native council. Tyler says Hinman rescinded the membership of a clan the Accohannock had adopted into its ranks, and sold some tribal assets, including a van and a cook wagon.

“Once Mike realized we were getting recognition, he went rogue,” said tribal member Diane Baldwin.

Tyler says he hasn’t spoken with Hinman since last summer. He says he wasn’t invited to the Annapolis ceremony announcing the state recognition.

“They couldn’t have hurt me no more if they’d take a knife and cut my heart out,” he said.

Hinman acknowledges selling the cook wagon and van. He says the tribe’s bylaws give him the authority to do so.

As for critics of the Accohannock’s history and the state recognition, he said: “We played by the book. We got all the documentation.”

He says Native Americans have withstood centuries of cultural erasure — and continue to face skepticism.

“We’re the only ethnic group in the world that has to prove who we are,” Hinman said.

“Think about it. If you’re Irish, no one questions it.”

ctkacik@baltsun.com

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