Group loses bid for tribal recognition

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A Maryland group's nearly decade-long battle to win state recognition as an Indian tribe has been rejected by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who said the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes failed to prove a direct link to early Native Americans.

The group failed to prove that its members are direct descendants of Indians living in Maryland before 1790, as state law requires, Ehrlich said in a statement issued late Wednesday.

In rejecting the Piscataway Conoy petition to become Maryland's first officially recognized tribe, Ehrlich followed the recommendation of state Housing Secretary Victor L. Hoskins, whose agency oversees issues related to Indian groups.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs had rejected the group's separate petition for federal tribal recognition for reasons similar to those listed by the state.

Ehrlich advised the group late Wednesday that the group could do further research, try to resolve unanswered questions and resubmit its application to the state if it chooses. Recognition helps a tribe gain access to federal education, housing and health care assistance.

The Piscataway Conoy had pursued state recognition as an Indian tribe amid speculation it was trying to put itself in a position to profit from gambling if Maryland approved slot machines.

In a written statement, Mervin Savoy, the Piscataway Conoy's tribal leader, said she regrets Ehrlich's decision to deny the petition filed by her group, which claims 3,500 members in Southern Maryland.

"We will continue to pursue our right to be identified as descendants of the indigenous people of Maryland," she said.

Savoy has repeatedly denied that her group has any desire to open casinos and noted that would require separate, federal recognition, which is difficult to obtain.

But The Sun discovered in 1999 that the group had drawn funds from Baltimore developer Richard A. Swirnow and a business partner from Singapore to help it document its case for tribal recognition.

And Lawrence Rivlin, a former attorney for Savoy's group who brought in the developers, said he had a written agreement with the Piscataway Conoys at one time to share in any income "to be derived from a hotel, or any gaming or other business activity" run by the group.

The group also paid a longtime friend of former Gov. Parris N. Glendening to set up a meeting so they could make a direct pitch to the governor for recognition, according to The Sun investigation.

Last year, Glendening, a staunch gambling foe, vetoed legislation to push him to recognize the group. He noted "the general perception that the push for these bills is about bringing slots to Maryland."

Billy Red Wing Tayac, chief of a rival tribal group, the Piscataway Indian Nation, said he always strongly suspected the Savoy group's real objective was to make a run at a casino gambling venture.

"You're going to be surprised at how much their membership will dwindle now," said Tayac, whose group claims 103 members.

The Piscataway Conoy submitted its petition for recognition to the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs in 1995.

A year later, the commission voted to recommend that the state recognize Savoy's group after a panel of experts reviewed the claims of Indian ancestry and judged them valid.

But the state housing secretary at the time questioned the validity of the claim, and the petition never moved from the Housing Department to the governor's desk.

Tayac's group also has a petition pending and is in the early phase of the lengthy review process for state recognition.

"We've got a lot of documentation," Tayac said. "We have the language, the artifacts that came down through the centuries."

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