After a recent tour of the Piscataway Indian Museum just north of Waldorf, a little girl tugged on museum director Natalie Standing-on-the-Rock Proctor's beribboned black dress.
"Are you really an Indian?" the girl asked.
"Yes, I am," said Proctor, a member of Southern Maryland's Piscataway tribe. She looked the part, her black braids tied with mink tails and a multicolored sash encircling her waist.
"But that can't be," the girl insisted. "All the Indians are dead."
It's an assumption that Proctor hopes the museum--formally, the American Indian Cultural Center and Piscataway Indian Museum--will challenge.
Those who tour the facility will learn that thousands of Piscataway Indians are alive and well in Maryland.
Although most had fled the state by 1700, some stayed. The remaining Piscataway felt that the only way to preserve their traditions was to fade into the background and live apart from society, explained University of Maryland anthropologist Aubrey Williams. Throughout the years, the group has been known as Wesorts, Brandywine people and Piscataways, its members variously designated black or mulatto by the U.S. Census. Like the Ramapo of northern New Jersey and the Melungeons of Appalachia, the Piscataway are considered "tri-racial isolates" by scholars.
"They attempted to maintain some cultural integrity," said Williams, who led a genealogy project several years ago in an effort to add Maryland's Piscataway tribe to the federal registry of Native American tribes. Williams says he gave up the effort after more than two years of research because he couldn't gather enough genealogical evidence to meet federal standards.
Today, two groups that represent the Piscataway, the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes and the Piscataway Indian Nation, have petitioned for state recognition, according to the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs.
Proctor says the Piscataway kept a low profile until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when there was a reawakening of Native American consciousness across the nation, led by the American Indian Movement and influenced by Martin Luther King Jr. and the black power movement.
"Back then, the saying was, 'Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud,' " says Proctor, who also works full time for the Prince George's County school system, providing academic support and tutoring to the area's nearly 300 Native American children.
"We would say, 'Hey, we're Indian, and we're proud, too.' We decided we didn't have to be ashamed of who we were."
Proctor, 40, grew up on Old Alexandria Ferry Road in Clinton, in a community she recalls as teeming with Piscataways. She remembers older family and friends recounting how they gathered as a tribe once a year at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Waldorf. Tribe members celebrated the harvest at the annual gathering, carrying picnic baskets and playing European games to avoid attracting attention.
But that changed with the advent of the movement and the rejuvenation of the Piscataway tribe. In 1980, the Wild Turkey clan, to which Proctor belongs, built the American Indian Cultural Center on 12 acres of government-donated land at Cedarville State Park that once served as a military base.
The museum itself is housed in a former barrack. It is maintained with the proceeds from powwows, dinners and the sale of Native American wares at craft shows. It is open by appointment only and welcomes tour groups.
On the morning that the little girl innocently questioned Proctor's ancestry, elementary school students from the Christian Family Montessori School in Mount Rainier and the Henson Valley Montessori School in Temple Hills were at the museum.
The children traveled the museum's long corridor, which is adorned with miniature replicas of Native American villages from various parts of the United States. Under the hall's glass display cases are exhibits of Native American totem poles, arrowheads, and bow and arrows.
Farther down the hall, a massive buffalo head is mounted on the wall beside the part of the museum devoted to the Piscataway tribe. It displays a time line delineating the tribe's development, but because so much of its past has been lost to history, it is short on details.
Adjacent to the corridor sits a 25-foot reproduction of a long house, a communal dwelling most often associated with the Iroquois. The rectangular house is made of saplings, tree bark and animal skins. Inside, beds covered with animal hides run along each side, and tree branches form beams across the ceiling that are hung with large hides to divide the house at night.
During the second half of the tour, Proctor led a high-energy discussion about Native American contributions to society.
"What do you guys like to do?" Proctor asked the crowd of 35 excitable children.
"Eat!" replied a little girl, to giggles from her classmates.
Proctor listed several foods that were originally cultivated by Native American tribes, including potatoes, peanuts, corn and pumpkins, using dried versions of the vegetables as props.
As she held up the pumpkin, she used it to illustrate a point about jack-o'-lanterns and the meaning of Halloween.
"Have any of you guys been an Indian for Halloween?"
"I did!" a little boy in the front row said proudly.
"Halloween is not a holiday that we celebrate," Proctor said, pointing out that the traditional dress of other races is not considered appropriate to be worn as Halloween costumes. "Why do we do that?"
Then there was silence. The children didn't seem to have grasped her point.
"Just something to think about," she said, eyeing the back row of teachers and parents, clearly the intended audience for her message.
The American Indian Cultural Center and Piscataway Indian Museum is at 16816 Country Lane, just north of the Charles County border in Prince George's County. Admission is $3 for adults, $2 for children. To schedule group tours, call 301-782-7622.