Gov. Martin O’Malley signed executive orders Monday recognizing groups of Piscataway tribes as Native Americans in Maryland.
The orders, signed just before 4 p.m. to applause from hundreds and the beat of drums under the Rotunda of the historic State House in Annapolis, marked the end of a decades-long struggle by the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and the Cedarville Band of Piscataway for official recognition in a state where their ancestors lived long before Europeans arrived and settled.
State recognition of the tribes, for the first time in Maryland, makes as much as $17 million in funding available to Piscataway members, as recognized Native Americans, through programs that can help them start or build businesses and in scholarships designated for tribal youths, as well as housing and public health assistance.
Piscataway spokesman Rico Newman said members want to make the most of state recognition before again seeking federal recognition.
For now, Newman said, the Piscataway will focus on such things as getting public institutions, such as the University of Maryland, to recruit the tribe’s young people.
"Now we'll be on a level playing field with Hispanics, [other] Native Americans and African Americans," Newman said.
As for persistent rumors that this could be a first step toward legalized Indian gaming, Newman called it "an albatross hung around our necks" long after the tribes began seeking recognition in the 1970s, well ahead of federal laws enacted in 1988 that made way for Native Americans to operate gaming operations tax-free on tribal land.
"Gaming is not a priority," Newman said.
Also, he said an attorney general's opinion decades ago assured state officials that recognition would not require anyone to give back land.
To be recognized by the state of Maryland, a tribe must substantiate that it existed continuously since before 1790, while a similar requirement for federal recognition sets the date at before 1900.
Addressing an enthusiastic crowd, O'Malley said the day was not just one of recognition, but of "reconciliation, and it is a day of arrival ... 380 years in the making."
He thanked the Piscataway for their "forgiveness" and noted that the "sense of brotherhood" and generosity with which their ancestors greeted white settlers who arrived on the Ark and the Dove "was often betrayed."
"We will never be denied our identity in the state of Maryland again," said Mervin Savoy, tribal chair of the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy and Sub-Tribes.
Tribal leaders thanked the governor and gave him gifts, including tobacco and the promise of arrows, commemorating the gift given when the tribe signed its last treaty.
Federal recognition, and land, is required for a Native-American tribe to operate casinos and gaming operations in the United States.
A petition submitted by the Piscataway Conoy in 1995 languished in the state bureaucracy until 2003, when Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. denied it.
On the advice given in August from the Office of the Attorney General, the tribe submitted updated information to support its application.
In September, a group of archaeologists from St. Mary’s College of Maryland and the College of Southern Maryland and a local businessman announced that they had discovered a 17th-century Piscataway Indian fort outside Waldorf in Charles County.
"We're here to show we have always been here, we've never left our land," said Gwendolyn Gibson of White Plains in Charles County, where many Piscataway members live.
Also in the audience were many Maryland residents who are members of tribes, including the Lumbee and Lenape, recognized by other states and therefore accorded Native-American status across the country.
"We've got to support our cousins," said David Holland, a member of the Accohannock from the Eastern Shore who now lives in Monterey, Va.