A tribe divided

Piscataway Indians’ search for identity sparks squabbles

Friday, Aug. 3, 2007

Piscataway Indians gathered at a powwow in Waldorf in early June, where men in elaborate and colorful dress demonstrated different forms of Native American dancing for an admiring audience. But many stayed away.

The event was hosted by the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, whose members say they are the surviving remnant of the ancient Piscataway nation, an Algonquin people that once dominated large parts of Charles, St. Mary’s and Prince George’s counties before being decimated and driven off by rival tribes and European settlers.

The modern Piscataway are not recognized by state or federal authorities — Maryland does not recognize any Indian tribes — but members of the Cedarville band said that while they would like recognition, official indifference doesn’t faze them.

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piscataway_eir072007 Staff Photo by Darwin Weigel 7/9/07 Robert Gajdys, a member of the Mohawk tribe, of Prince Frederick poses at one of the wigwams at Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Gajdys is treasurer of the Friends of Jefferson Patterson Park and has worked closely on locating and building the new American Indian village at the park.

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Staff Photo by Gary Smith
Carmen Bryant, left, Vernell Windsor (partially behind Thomas Windsor, center) and Carlos Howard are family members and part of the Cedarville Band of the Piscataway Indians. Thomas Windsor is vice-chairman of the Maryland Committee on Indian Affairs. They participated in the annual June festival and powwow hosted by their band in Waldorf at the American Indian Cultural Center.

‘‘It’s just about being Piscataway and part of who I am,” said Crystal Proctor, 28, daughter of the Cedarville band’s tribal chairwoman, Natalie Proctor. ‘‘Regardless of whether the state or federal government recognizes me, it’s just who I am. ... Dance, song, storytelling and just basic way of life. It’s a way of life,”

State recognition would serve as an affirmation of the tribe’s status and could also provide access to subsidies and serve as a step toward federal recognition.

The powwow included performers and vendors from tribes throughout the country, and even a troupe of Polynesian dancers. Notably absent were members of two other organizations claiming to represent the Piscataway, the Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway-Conoy Confederation and Sub-tribes. All three groups broke off from an organization founded by Turkey Tayac, the originator of the modern Piscataway movement, after his death in 1978. They haven’t gotten along since.

Crystal Proctor said the problem stemmed from having ‘‘a whole bunch of chiefs and not a whole lot of Indians. Everybody wants to be in charge of something.” But she also held out hope that the groups would come together to renew their efforts for recognition.

During a brief conversation, Mervin Savoy, chairwoman of the apparently defunct Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy, denied the existence of any conflict, saying that the members of all three organizations were Piscataway-Conoy. When told that some had denied any connection with her, she said, ‘‘I’m really busy and I really don’t have any time for this. Goodbye,” before hanging up.

Gabrielle Tayac, a historian at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., and Turkey Tayac’s granddaughter, said conflicts of this type were probably inevitable in any tribe trying to reassert itself after centuries of submersion.

‘‘People are renewing their identity, and there’s a lot of tension about that,” she said. ‘‘There had been a great deal of dispute over who was the right person to represent, who had the right to be in the leadership and that’s where the split occurred. It’s a political split on the other hand, because [of] the other people who went on to become Piscataway Indian [organizations]. There was a court case where [Turkey Tayac’s original organization] was split.”

Gabrielle Tayac, a member of the Piscataway Indian Nation, also said that members of the Cedarville Band and the Piscataway-Conoy might be descended from Indian nations other than the Piscataway.

‘‘Mervin Savoy [and her followers], they said that they were Nanticoke Susquehannocks, and also there were other people that had a vague notion that they were Indians but weren’t really sure who they were anymore. You have to understand the process involved. These were communities that had been so overwhelmed by economic hardship, racism in the area, sometimes I think it is difficult for us to understand,” Gabrielle Tayac said.

Turkey Tayac had been born Phillip Sheridan Proctor, but Gabrielle Tayac said it was unlikely that her grandfather was related to the Proctors of the Cedarville band.

‘‘Proctor is a [name of a] large number among free people of color, people who are descended from free blacks,” Gabrielle Tayac said. ‘‘It seems that it’s a name that emerged as a widespread name among people in the Port Tobacco area. If there is a relation it’s somewhat remote. So if they were cousins at all, it’s far back.”

Ivory tower skepticism

The waters are further muddied by academics who claim that the modern Piscataway are not Piscataway at all. The most vocal critics of the Piscataway organizations are Thomas Ford Brown and Leah C. Sims, who are husband and wife. Brown’s Web site identifies him as an assistant professor of sociology at Lamar University in Texas, but a woman who answered the phone at Lamar’s sociology department said he left more than a year ago without leaving forwarding information. He could not be reached for comment.

While at Lamar, Brown wrote a paper called ‘‘Ethnic Identity Movements and the Legal Process: the Piscataway Revival,” purporting to show that the families claiming Piscataway descent today can be traced in Maryland back to late 17th-century unions between English indentured servant women and black slaves.

The descendants of these children eventually became a distinct population, the ‘‘Wesorts,” who occupied an intermediate place between slaves and whites in the region’s racial hierarchy, Brown wrote.

Furthermore, Brown wrote, Piscataway identity was assumed as an attempt by a vulnerable mixed-race population to insulate itself from Maryland’s Jim Crow laws after the Civil War, Brown wrote.

‘‘Claiming Indian status was a means of differentiating themselves from recently freed slaves. Some groups were able to successfully negotiate a third, ‘Indian’ category in an essentially biracial society. They could thereby benefit from schools and churches separate from the recently freed black community, and benefit from some degree of relief from the racial oppression visited upon African Americans,” Brown wrote. ‘‘The Piscataway petition for recognition shows no remorse at all for this racial separatism. Indeed, it cites tales of Wesort children fighting black children and calling them racist names. The petition also claims that Wesorts habitually ostracized their kin who married blacks.”

Brown agrees that the Wesorts might have legitimate claims to Indian descent, but denies that their ancestors could have been Piscataway. It is also unlikely that American Indian traditions could have been passed down because early Wesort progenitors were taken from their parents as babies and made servants or slaves, he wrote.

‘‘While the Wesorts may well have some degree of Indian heritage — however minute — its specific tribal origin is mostly hypothetical. The Wesorts could plausibly claim descent from any of the tribes indigenous to the Western Shore, as well as from many families of European and African origin. However, at time of European contact the Piscataway were the dominant tribe in the Upper Chesapeake region. Their tayac was a paramount chief to whom other local tribes paid tribute. Turkey Tayac, in identifying with the most powerful and prestigious Indian tribe in local history ... may have been trying to compensate for his family’s low social status,” Brown wrote.

Maurice Proctor, husband of Natalie Proctor of the Cedarville band, denied Brown’s claims.

‘‘It is false. He’s just talking out the side of his neck. He doesn’t know the Piscataway people at all, and he’d never be accepted into our confidence,” he said.

Gabrielle Tayac said she believes Brown’s opinions stem from racism.

‘‘He seems to be obsessed with people of mixed race, particularly people who are of Indian ancestry who are also [black]. ... I don’t know if it’s a concern about racial purity. What’s interesting to me is it’s exactly the same kind of language as you see among the eugenicists [advocates of controlling human genetics] who were writing in the 1930s or the late 19th century. It seems so deeply disturbing to me that that’s the case,” Gabrielle Tayac said. She also pointed out that Brown’s and Sims’ papers have been self-published on the Internet rather than appearing in peer-reviewed journals, a red flag in academic circles that a piece of scholarship may be sub par.

Gabrielle Tayac denied any connection between her family and the ‘‘Wesorts” in Brown’s article, though she said members of other Piscataway organizations were ‘‘people identifying as Wesorts. They were emphatically not Indians. Those families, for example, those people who actually denied Piscataway [ancestry] was Hugh Proctor’s mother [an ancestor of the Cedarville Band]. They say, ‘Well, she didn’t feel comfortable. She thought it was unsafe.’ I wasn’t there in 1920. I don’t know what happened. This is just what’s been told to me.”

Gabrielle Tayac also said that the modern Piscataway would have no reason to fabricate their ancestry and that attacks on American Indian communities could inhibit people from stepping forward. She is proud that her tribe has survived at all.

‘‘We’ve married lots of different kinds of people,” Gabrielle Tayac said. ‘‘People had to cope with huge amounts of stresses, and I think the fact that we made it in any form whatsoever should be a tremendous source of pride for Maryland. Instead, the trend has been trying to eliminate our people socially. This is a trend that has occurred for some time. Our communities, at this point, are no longer willing to accept a legacy of shame or degradation.”

In an emotional conversation, Shirley Tayac, wife of Piscataway Indian Nation chief Billy ‘‘Redwing” Tayac, denounced Brown and members of the other two organizations as frauds.

‘‘How do you think there got to be so many groups?” Shirley Tayac said. ‘‘If they don’t get enrolled with the Piscataway nation, they get their own. They went to the state of Maryland [with a petition for recognition] ... and it was denied. And now we are still fighting with those people, and you say they are Piscataway? ... I’ve never known them to be called ‘Piscataway’ before a certain time.”

Billy ‘‘Redwing” Tayac and Natalie Proctor both agreed to be interviewed by telephone, but could not be reached for comment at the scheduled time or afterward.

Hopes for recognition

Despite the friction between the groups, however, American Indian advocates still hold out hope for state recognition of the Piscataway.

‘‘I think we have an administration at the present time that sees Indian people for who they are, indigenous people, and they’re going to do everything they can justifiably to do what needs to be done,” said Bob Colston, executive director of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs and a member of the Tuscarora and Lumbee tribes.

Bob Gajdys of Prince Frederick is a member of the Mohawk nation and a former commissioner of Indian affairs for the federal government. He said that attention from the 400th anniversary of Jamestown could improve the odds for the Piscataway.

Asked about the possibility of recognition for the Piscataway, Gajdys said, ‘‘That is the $64,000 question. If you had asked me that last year, my reaction would have been that it would probably be very difficult to see where recognition would be given. But what has happened in this last year is that you now have a full nine members of the Maryland Indian commission. I know all nine members and they’re all very capable.”

Recognition is important because it gives tribes better access to the government and to subsidies, but it confers less tangible benefits as well.

‘‘First of all, recognition is recognizing you as a man or a woman, as an individual, as who you are. And what raises some pause for some Indian people is that I have to be recognized by my own government, to say I am who I am,” Gajdys said. ‘‘Indian people are proud of their heritage. I’m three-quarters Indian and one-quarter Irish, and I’m damn proud of my Irish heritage, too. But I don’t have to show that I can distinguish between 43 shades of green to prove that I’m Irish. Why do I have to pass a test to prove that I’m a Native American?”

A Piscataway warrior from the Cedarville band will be among the American Indians greeting ‘‘John Smith” at Jefferson-Patterson Park and Museum in St. Leonard during the upcoming re-enactment of Smith’s voyages through the Chesapeake, Gajdys said.

He said he didn’t know if the modern Piscataway were truly the descendants of the Algonquin tribe but was emphatic that American Indians still live in Maryland.

‘‘To say that no Indians live in Maryland is a personal affront to me. I’m Indian and I’m damn proud of it, and if anyone wants to say I don’t exist I’d be happy to talk to them, whoever they are,” Gajdys said.

E-mail Erica Mitrano atemitrano@somdnews.com.

Erica Mitrano