Piscataway tribe

Natalie Proctor, left, and Mervin Savoy, both tribal chairs, at the signing of the executive orders. (Algerina Perna / The Baltimore Sun / January 9, 2012)

For Mervin Savoy, recognition was sweet — even if it came more than two centuries too late.

Savoy was one of hundreds of Piscataways who gathered beneath the State House dome in Annapolis Monday as Gov. Martin O'Malley issued executive orders formally recognizing the Native American tribe as a distinct people. It is the first time Maryland has given formal recognition to a tribe.

"This is indeed a momentous occasion," said Savoy, chairwoman of the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe. "We have waited more than 200 years to get our identity back."

While Savoy said the symbolism of recognition is important, the designation of the Piscataways also carries some practical benefits for tribe members in Maryland, estimated to number in the thousands. According to the governor's office, the tribe's official status makes it eligible for more than $17 million in federal funding for education, housing, public health and other programs.

The designation also could make it easier for Piscataway-owned businesses to qualify as minority business enterprises — a status that could help them win state and local government contracts, the governor's office said.

One benefit recognition will not confer on the Piscataways is the right to open casinos — a lucrative revenue source for Native American tribes in other states. O'Malley spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said that as part of the agreement that led to formal recognition, the Piscataways have renounced any plan to get into the gambling business. The executive orders specify that they do not grant any "special privileges" related to gambling.

Concerns that an official designation would open the door to tribal casinos have derailed the Piscataways' efforts to win recognition. In 2002, Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a slots opponent, vetoed a bill that would have streamlined the tribal recognition process out of concern it could lead to casino gambling.

In 2004, according to the Piscataway-Conoy website, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. denied a petition for tribal recognition. Izzy Patoka, executive director of the Governor's Office of Community Initiatives, said O'Malley accepted documentation about the tribe's history that Ehrlich had rejected.

In the past, the drive for recognition has been thwarted in part by internal divisions between the rival Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and the Piscataway Indian Nation. O'Malley's executive orders recognize both groups, as well as the Cedarville Band of the Piscataways.

Guillory said O'Malley has long wanted to recognize the Piscataways but had to wait because the attorney general ruled that a petition submitted in 1995 needed to be updated. Patoka said the state Commission on Indian Affairs decided last month that the Piscataway nation and confederacy had submitted adequate documentation and recommended recognition of both groups.

The Piscataways were among the tribes living in Maryland's Western Shore at the time of European settlement. It is unclear exactly how many Piscataways now live in Maryland. Savoy said Catholic Church records suggest there are about 5,000 tribe members. Most live in Southern Maryland.

The tribe still is not federally recognized.

To the sound of drums, O'Malley signed the orders at a State House ceremony where he was flanked by tribal leaders, some in native American dress.

"Today is a day of recognition. It is a day of reconciliation. It is a day of arrival," the governor said. "To all of the Piscataway people: You did not need an executive order to tell you who you are."

The ceremony drew Piscataways and their family members from several surrounding states.

Philip Harley, a Brandywine native who now lives in North Carolina, left his home at 7 a.m. to attend the midafternoon event. He said he and his fellow Piscataways have been waiting a long time for such a step.

"It's like we were a people without identification," he said.

Dave Harley, Philip's brother, came from Alexandria, Va., for the ceremony. He said that when he was growing up in Southern Maryland his mother would fill out forms stating her ethnic background as American Indian only to have bureaucrats cross out that line. The tribal designation, he said, is something Piscataways have been seeking since the 1970s.

"It just gives us a little sense of pride," he said.

For John T. Swann of La Plata, it was the culmination of years of effort.

"We've been going through this ever since I went to kindergarten school," he said. "I never thought I'd see the day."

Under state law, in order to secure the recognition, the Piscataways had to document that the tribe was native to Maryland before 1790 and that it has been in the state continuously since then. Savoy said the Piscataways had to complete an extensive genealogy of their members, as well as a tribal history.

In addition to opening the door for federal aid programs, formal recognition will allow the state to deal directly with the Piscataways on the reburial of Native Americans' remains when they're found. According to the governor's office, in the past, Maryland has had to consult with out-of-state tribes in such cases.

Patoka said one other group of native Americans, the Accohannock tribe from the Lower Eastern Shore, is in the process of applying for state recognition.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com