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Local Piscataway Indians celebrated receiving official Maryland recognition of their tribes Saturday with thankful words from tribal leaders and dignitaries who gathered at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Pomfret.

Tribal leaders and several dignitaries gave thanks for nearly 40 years of work to certify the Piscataways’ Native American heritage in the eyes of the state and exhorted the next generation to take advantage of new opportunities available.

Mervin Savoy, tribal chairwoman for the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy & Subtribes, said, “We finally achieved all we tried to do since 1968.”

Savoy said that in 1968, the family petitioned the Prince George’s County Board of Education to allow a relative to register as an American Indian in the school system, and with the help of the family’s attorney, current House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md., 5th), their request was granted.

Speaking to the tribe’s younger generation, Savoy said, “I pray you have the stamina that your parents and grandparents had.”

Rico Newman, spokesman for the Piscataway-Conoy tribe, said that the process to formally request official status from the state began in 1974.

“This is to celebrate the governor restoring status to us,” Newman said.

Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) signed two executive orders Jan. 9 that granted Maryland Indian status to the Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway-Conoy tribe.

The executive orders became official Feb. 9, 30 days after O’Malley signed them.

Several groups are under the umbrella of the Piscataway-Conoy tribe, including the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians and the Piscataway-Conoy Confederacy & Subtribes.

Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown praised all Piscataway leaders and members for their efforts to secure state recognition for their Native American heritage.

Brown (D) also recognized Del. Talmadge Branch (D-Baltimore) for his efforts to help the Piscataway Indians obtain state recognition.

Brown said the Piscataway Indians have much work to do to take advantage of the state’s recognition, including opportunities for health care, Minority Business Enterprise status and education dollars.

Brown added that he is looking forward to working with the Piscataway to obtain the opportunities available to them.

Newman said that the tribe will need to study what programs the tribe is eligible for now that the state has given official recognition.

Natalie Proctor, tribal chairwoman for the Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians, praised tribe members, saying, “Each and every one of us has done an excellent job.”

Proctor said that the United States has not always respected indigenous peoples’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, as stated in the Declaration of Independence, but that people have the endowment of their minds to shape the experiences of the world.

Proctor said that by thinking positively and tapping into the unlimited potential of the human mind, people can achieve and obtain what they want in life.

“Imagine that by changing your way of thinking, you can change your life,” Proctor said.

One point mentioned several times during the celebration was that the Piscataway didn’t need the state to tell them who they were — they always knew they were Native Americans.

Oliver Gray, who was one of the original elders on the tribe’s council of elders who first petitioned for state recognition, said the tribe has been wanting this status for a long time, and he personally has worked toward recognition for nearly 80 years.

Now, 85, Gray said, “The governor said to us, ‘We don’t have to tell you who you are — you know who you’ve always been,’” Gray said.

“Our children and our children’s children can go forward on what we built on,” Gray said.

Charles County commissioners’ Vice President Reuben B. Collins II (D) said that one of the highlights of his tenure as county commisioner was the Jan. 9 meeting in Annapolis when O’Malley signed the executive orders for state Indian status.

Collins said about Savoy, “She already knew who she was. It did not take the state to recognize who the Piscataway were.”

Charles County State’s Attorney Anthony B. Covington (D) echoed Collins’ comments.

“You’ll always be who you were — everyone else needed to know,” he said.

Barry Wilson, the celebration’s master of ceremonies and member of the executive committee of the Maryland Indian Tourism Association, invited Branch to say a few words.

Branch said he felt like he was employed by the Piscataway Indians, given the amount of time he has spent advocating on their behalf.

Branch, who has served in the State House for 18 years and currently serves as the House majority whip, said he began working with the Piscataway people in his second year as a representative.

Branch, who is of African-American and Native American heritage, said that one of the reasons he took interest in the Piscataway’s petition for recognition was that he is a member of the Tuscarora tribe in North Carolina.

“I did not know of any other legislators who were interested in Indian issues at the time,” he said.

Branch listed several accomplishments achieved on behalf of Native Americans, including appointing a Native American director of the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, a Native American majority of commission members and a holiday honoring Native Americans on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

“Keep me as your employee,” Branch said.

Maurice Proctor, a member of the Cedarville clan of the Piscataway Indians, said, “It feels great that they finally did the right thing after 380 years.”