Indian Tribe Nears its Goal

By Sarah Koenig, Sun Staff
April 15, 2002

But some see effort for state recognition as step toward casinos; Bill would speed process; Gambling not objective, Piscataway-Conoy members say of campaign.

For nearly seven years, a group of people claiming Indian ancestry has spent thousands of dollars and endless lobbying hours on a campaign for state recognition.

Their wait might soon be over. Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign legislation that would speed the recognition process, moving the Piscataway-Conoy Indians of Southern Maryland closer to gaining official status.

A state-sponsored identity, members say, can provide the 2,000-strong tribe with education, health and housing benefits, not to mention honor and pride. But to many people wary of the tribe’s efforts, recognition connotes one thing: gambling.

State recognition (Maryland does not recognize any tribes) can make it much easier for a group to get federal recognition, which in turn can lead to gambling on tribal land.

The suspicion that local Indians are angling for casinos is especially heightened now that Maryland is at a fiscal and political crossroads. After passing landmark legislation this month that would pump $1.3 billion into public schools over six years, lawmakers and the next governor will be under great pressure to figure out how to pay for it. Gambling revenue has long been held out as the easiest and most lucrative source.

Glendening has been staunchly anti-gambling, but his office said he is expected to sign this legislation. Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who wants to succeed him, does not support slots. But U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican candidate, has made it clear he does.

In addition, the Piscataway-Conoy petition has had help in the past from developers – which has further piqued anti-gambling advocates.

The tribe has had support from developers Richard A. Swirnow of Baltimore and Mark R. Vogel of Prince George’s County. In 1997, Vogel recommended the tribe hire attorney Lance W. Billingsley, a friend of Glendening and chairman of University System of Maryland’s Board of Regents who was paid $10,000 to help it in its bid to obtain state recognition. As part of his services, he arranged a meeting with the governor, but even so, Glendening declined to intervene.

‘Something fishy’

“I smell something fishy,” said Barbara Knickelbein, regional representative of the National Coalition Against Gambling Expansion. “Something like power-cash politics involved, I don’t know. … We don’t have $10,000, but we will work against this bill.”

The bill’s proponents and tribe members say they don’t want slot machines and that the bill would simply force state officials to make timely decisions. “Certainly I did not want to see gambling form as a result of this,” said Del. Talmadge Branch, a Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill and worked doggedly to make it pass – which it did the last day of the General Assembly session last week.

The bill was important to Branch for cultural reasons, he said, because his grandfather on his father’s side was a Tuscarora Indian from North Carolina. “It was about people,” added Branch, who also is chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus. “This could just as well have been an African-American group.”

Amendment to Bill

Branch had to reassure the governor and other important lawmakers that the legislation would not lead to casinos. When colleagues balked, he amended the bill to say it “may not be construed to create any entitlements, benefits, or rights to conduct, manage, or operate any gambling or gaming activities in the State.”

An attorney general’s opinion on the legislation March 4 solicited by Branch states it would be extremely unlikely that a tribe could parlay state recognition into a gambling venture, largely because no Indian group owns land in Maryland. Exceptions exist, however: One scenario is that a tribe could acquire land, then introduce gambling if federal, state and local governments agree.

For state recognition, a tribe must submit an extensive petition tracing its ancestry back about two centuries. The state Commission on Indian Affairs reviews the petition, then forwards its recommendation to the secretary of Housing and Community Development. The secretary weighs the petition and sends his or her recommendation to the governor, who has final say.

Branch’s bill would require the secretary to pass the commission’s recommendation to the governor within 60 days. The governor would have 120 days to make a decision.

‘A New Spirit’

“We would like the governor to go ahead and sign it so we’ll be the first recognized tribe in Maryland, and that will kind of correct the wrongness against the tribe over the last 300 years, and give a new spirit to the young people,” said Maurice Eagle Shadow Proctor, a council member of the Wild Turkey clan of the Piscataway tribe.

But a rival group claiming to be the only true Piscataway ancestry says money, not spirit, is motivating the petition. Billy Red Wing Tayac is chief of the Piscataway Indian Nation, and son of Chief Turkey Tayac, who is buried in Piscataway National Park.

His group also has applied for state recognition, but that petition has not moved forward. Tayac says the Piscataway-Conoys appropriated his group’s identity, simply for gambling.

He points to the group’s past connections to developers.

‘Can They Buy It?’

“They can say anything they want to, but I’m telling you, that’s their goal,” Tayac said. “If the truth is told, they can’t get [state recognition]. But the question I got is, can they buy it?”

Clearly the Department of Housing and Community Development has been troubled by the Piscataway-Conoy application. The previous secretary returned a recommendation for recognition to the Commission on Indian Affairs in 1998, but her reasons were never made public.

‘Crucial Standards’

The current secretary, Raymond A. Skinner, also has asked the commission to conduct more genealogical work. Edward McDonough, a department spokesman, said the delays were to ensure the research is correct.

“This is the first time that we’ve done tribal recognition,” he said. “This is going to set a precedent, so we want to make sure we hold them to the absolute most crucial standards.”

The gambling issue, he said, had nothing to do with it.

Richard Regan, a member of the Commission on Indian Affairs, said the legislation does nothing to improve the application process, which he characterized as fraught with politics and in-fighting.

‘A Bad Process’

“The bill just basically tweaked what is already a bad process,” he said. “It may actually speed up a bad decision.”

But he also is dismayed that gambling has become associated with all things Indian. When he was confirmed as a commissioner by the Senate two years ago, “All these guys wanted to talk about was gaming,” he said. “There’s this myth out there that recognition equals gaming. That’s a very hard perception for a tribe to overcome.”

Copyright © 2002, The Baltimore Sun