Mario Harley remembers how it felt when he learned in school that, officially, his people did not exist.
“Many history books say we died out,” Harley, a Waldorf resident and Piscataway Indian, said during the 30th annual Piscataway Powwow in Waldorf on June 3. “That was hard as a kid in school. My parents said something different, but at the same time, the teacher is always right.”
He wore feathered and beaded traditional ceremonial clothes, his long, black hair graying at the temples, as he recalled long-ago slights. For Harley, the most important part of the formal state recognition of the Piscataway tribe Jan. 9 is the acknowledgment of his tribe in state records and history books.
Otherwise, “for me it does not mean that much. I always knew my identity,” he said.
For other Piscataways, official recognition is uncharted territory — a first step to a future they meet with hope.
“It’s an amazing opportunity,” said Miki Hinton of Hughesville. “Not for this generation, but for the next generation. We are grown. This was the notable experience of our lives. We can finally share this with our children; teach them that this is what we were working for our whole lives, and they should embrace this opportunity.”
Hinton, 30, wore a blue blouse with a short cape displaying intricate bead work, and a dress with scores of silver-colored bells sewn on it, tinkling a merry accompaniment to her every move.
“It’s a pleasing feeling, having not only our families, our clans recognize our heritage,” Hinton said. “But now, having someone else recognize us, we can hold our heads high.”
Francis Gray of Waldorf said recognition could help the tribe gain a higher profile, especially with its proximity to the District.
“For our cultural endeavors, it helps us with a lot of different resources from around the country,” Gray said. “For other tribal associations, we can be a host for tribes that have to come in to do business” in the District.
Rico Newman, a spokesman for the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy and Subtribes, one of several Piscataway groups whose existence is now formally recognized, said the actual ramifications of recognition remain to be seen.
“It’s like the old joke about a dog chasing a car. We’ve got it; now what do we do with it?” he said. “We have to determine that.”
Newman scoffed at some of the arguments made by opponents of recognition during the 40 years the tribe has tried to get the status — 16 of which was spent actively lobbying state government.
“There were so many red herrings,” he said. “There was a lot of discussion that land would change hands, but there was no validity to that; the attorney general of the state said that he was satisfied there were no conflicts. Gaming was brought up and addressed, and that is a nonissue, as well. . . . We do not qualify.”
At the recognition ceremony, state officials acknowledged that the delay, 16 years and four gubernatorial administrations since the tribes first began to seek formal recognition by the state, was based on fears of uncontrolled gambling and possible lawsuits to become owners of land taken from the Piscataway in Colonial times and after.
“That reason for denying people their recognition was based in pure ignorance and a lack of any factual information,” Del. Peter Murphy (D-Dist. 28) said in an interview at the time of the ceremony.
So does recognition by the Maryland government have any material benefits?
“Well, that remains to be seen,” Newman said.
He said tribe members could be eligible for some health benefits that they aren’t eligible for now under federal money passed through the state, but even that is not a sure thing. He said state agencies want to see some data before committing to helping tribe members.
“We need to get a demographic study done,” Newman said.
“I can say, ‘Well, we have folks with diabetes in greater proportion [to the population at large]; we have some older folks with various types of cancers; our kids have a higher dropout rate.’ But the state wants numbers, and we don’t have them.”
Newman said tribal rolls for his Piscataway-Conoy people have about 1,700 to 1,800 members, but he has heard from folks from across the country — as far away as Hawaii, he said — who are interested in claiming their heritage.
“Before, there was never really a reason to do it,” Newman said of enrolling in the tribe. “Now, people are interested.
He said as many as 15,000 could apply for membership.
For a new generation of Piscataways, the talk of health benefits, legal status and demographics is beside the point.
Jeremy Harley, 11, Mario Harley’s son and a student at William A. Diggs Elementary School, said recognition is “amazing. It tells everyone we’re still around. People thought we had died out. A lot of people had no idea we were even here.”
Noah Sparrow, 12, of Clinton said he was proud and honored to have been invited, with Jeremy, to the recognition ceremony.
“We got to play the drums,” he said. “I felt proud of who we are.”