Md. recognition of Piscataways adds happy note to complicated history

INDIAN HEAD — — For as long as she can remember, Mervin Savoy has pressed the world to see her as she sees herself.

She refused to be bowed by the school officials who wouldn't let her write "American Indian" on forms identifying her race. She refused to be halted by governors who said her people's history was too thinly documented. Even a prolonged feud with fellow tribal leader Billy Tayac failed to dissuade her.


Last week, at age 68, Savoy let a contented smile flood her face as Gov. Martin O'Malley said the words she had waited so long to hear. The Piscataway Indians — the people she had called her own since she formed any concept of an identity — were Maryland's first indigenous tribe. Official reality had finally bent to her will.

A few feet away, Tayac felt similarly contented as he thought of his father, the medicine man who had steeped him in a fading history of Piscataway language and herbal lore, who had fought to be buried in a state park beside the bones of his ancestors.


"He was proud of who he was, and he never gave it up, never," says Tayac, who calls himself the 28th hereditary chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation, one of the tribe's two main factions along with Savoy's Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy. "He always said, 'This is our land. This is where God put us. Never relinquish it.'"

The Piscataways' history in Maryland is thousands of years old and as complicated as it is long.

It's a story of families, clinging for generations to an identity denied by the wider world. It's a story of rejection by powerful men, of waters muddied by bitter internal conflict. But finally, it's a story that has reached a happy juncture.

Savoy and Tayac stood together last week at the front of the room while O'Malley recognized the Piscataways, who number as many as 5,000, according to Catholic Church records, and who live mostly in Southern Maryland.

"No animosity, no infighting," says Savoy, the elected leader of the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy. "We came together as a people."

When the Piscataways first sought official recognition in the late 1990s, their internal schism helped derail the process. Tayac said publicly that Savoy's branch only wanted recognition as the launching point to build a lucrative casino. That perception was strengthened when the tribe accepted funds from developers who were thought to be interested in gambling sites.

Troubled by the potential connections to gambling, Gov. Parris N. Glendening vetoed a bill that would have hastened the recognition process. His successor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., rejected the tribe's bid for recognition, saying the Piscataways had not adequately documented ties to Native Americans living in Maryland before 1790.

But O'Malley pledged to reconsider the issue and ultimately came to a different conclusion based on the submitted evidence. O'Malley was always sympathetic to the Piscataways' case, says Izzy Patoka, executive director for the Governor's Office of Community Initiatives.


"There was always a perception that the effort was related to gaming, and true or not, they could not shake it," says Patoka, who managed the issue for the governor. "But I never saw that as a priority for this community. It's more a matter of pride."

The Piscataways renounced their right to open casinos in negotiating for recognition. But the designation will unlock $17 million in federal funds for education, housing and public health, and could make Piscataway contractors eligible for state and federal minority business deals.

The tribe is still pursuing federal recognition, an effort Savoy hopes will be aided by O'Malley's decision. The Piscataways are on a list for "technical assistance," a precursor to consideration by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The process requires exhaustive documentation, and the bureau has rarely granted recognition to new tribes in recent years.

Savoy scoffs at the idea that her tribe is motivated by financial rewards. "I don't know why people think that if you're an Indian, you get all these free things from the government," she says, noting the pervasive poverty and hopelessness on many reservations.

For her, the struggle always came back to identity.

"A reporter once asked me what it felt like to be an Indian," Savoy says, laughing. "You might as well ask me what it feels like to be a woman. I don't know; I've never been anything else."


Savoy didn't see anything unusual in the way her grandparents lived off the land. Her grandmother picked mint and peach leaves to flavor food. For a headache, she prescribed bark from a weeping willow tree. For a bee sting, she rubbed the irritated skin with three types of grass.

"All of these things, you could just walk out to the yard and get," Savoy says.

Her family used knives with handles made of deer antlers and hooves. They owned handmade eel traps. Every day, it seemed, a grandparent or great-grandparent told some story of the deep past.

"You got this big, you knew who you were," says Savoy's sister, Diana, holding her hand a few feet off the floor. "You're not black, you're not colored, you're not white. You're Native American, and don't let anybody tell you different."

But the girls, two of 13 siblings, found that being Native American was not so comfortable in the world outside their family homes.

In elementary school, when segregation still reigned in Southern Maryland, they were not allowed to board the buses for white or black children. In junior high and high schools, they got used to being shoved down stairs, having their lunches slapped from their hands and their clothes thrown in the shower during gym.


"I tell people those were the worst six years of my life," Savoy says.

She and her sister recall being called to the office over and over to be told they had filled out forms incorrectly. Invariably, some adult would scratch out "American Indian" and write "colored" or "other." Any instruction on Native American history focused on the Western frontier. It was as if the Piscataways had never farmed and fished along Maryland's Western Shore.

Savoy remembers one teacher telling her, "You're a conquered people. Learn to act like it."

Life as an adult wasn't so bad. She learned to be a regular worker during the day (she eventually led Native American education efforts in Charles County) and to celebrate her heritage at night.

As she speaks in the basement of her home in Indian Head, a small Charles County home along the Potomac River, Savoy is decked in tribal regalia from head to toe. She wears colorful hair ties, a turtle medallion emblematic of her clan, leggings made of elk skin and hand-sewn moccasins with the center seam and puck toes favored by her people. She holds a fan fashioned from the wing of a blue heron.

The Piscataway-Conoy began their quest for state recognition in the 1970s. "We just wanted our identity back," says Savoy, who was elected tribal leader in 1981.


That process brought her into conflict with Tayac, who says he inherited leadership of the tribe from his father, Turkey Tayac. The groups were officially split by a Prince George's County judge in 1980.

Born Philip S. Proctor in the late 19th century, Turkey Tayac looms large in most tellings of recent Piscataway history. He was struck down by German mustard gas while fighting in World War I. The prognosis was bad, his son says, until the young Piscataway turned to the herbal medicine he had learned from his grandmother. He recovered and didn't return to a white doctor, his son says, until he was near death from leukemia in 1978.

Billy Tayac says his father was born in the woods and remained a man of the 19th century more than the 20th. Anthropologists and linguists visited him to hear remnants of the tribe's lore and language.

"Everybody was fascinated by him," his son says. "All the professional people couldn't believe someone like that still existed. He was a mirror to the past."

Billy Tayac, 75, also speaks as if his mind is half in the present, where he operates a furniture store with his son, and half in the world of 400 years ago, where the Piscataways greeted the first English sailors to settle on Maryland's shores.

The Port Tobacco resident says he is the rightful 28th chief of his people, just as his father was the 27th. But Savoy says the title is self-appointed and that the Piscataways have no history of handing leadership from father to son.


"His father was a nice old man," she says of Tayac. "I don't see him. We don't travel in the same circles."

She isn't sure why so much has been made of the internal rivalry. "There are disagreements in families," Savoy says. "Why do people think that just because we're natives, we don't have the same tensions as everybody else?"

The Piscataway-Conoy have 1,800 enrolled members, Savoy says; the Piscataway Indian Nation has 103, according to Tayac.

Both groups have their sacred places.

For Savoy, it's St. Ignatius Church on the Port Tobacco River, where, in 1641, Father Andrew White converted a Piscataway chief to Catholicism. Most tribe members have practiced Catholicism ever since. On that hillside, with the river flowing before her and a stained-glass depiction of the historic conversion overhead, Savoy feels the pains of the modern world ebb away.

For Tayac, it's Moyoane, a 20-acre site along the Potomac River, where many of his ancestors are buried. His father's dying wish was to be interred on the land, which is government-owned and sits directly across the river from George Washington's Mount Vernon.


Turkey Tayac believed he had been promised that right by federal officials. They told his son otherwise. But Billy Tayac fought for a year, and in November 1979, backed by a congressional order, he buried his father in Moyoane under a cedar tree festooned with strings of Native American prayer cloth.

"Happiest day of my life," he says.

Tayac and his people hold four celebrations a year at the burial ground. The state recognition this week only affirmed the feelings that stir in him when he visits there.

"I would give my life for that ground," he says. "To us, that's Vatican City or Mecca. When you pick up a handful of earth there, you pick up two or three people's lives."