Natalie Standingontherock Proctor from Wild Turkey Clan rushed through the cultural center last week making a mental list of what had already been removed — the tribal documents that Hugh Bird Legs Proctor meticulously signed; the books about indigenous history in the library that Gladys Keeper of the Pipe Proctor curated from scratch; the showcases that Pete Papa Bear Proctor built by hand. The sacred artifacts, stored in cases that were broken as the tribe prepared to move, a time of chaos and mourning.
For the past two weeks, Proctor and the Cedarville Band of the Piscataway Indians have been operating under the assumption they will be forced to leave their ancestral winter hunting grounds. In the beginning of February, the state-recognized tribe and nonprofit organization received a notice from Charles County commissioners to vacate the property near Waldorf. The tribe, one of three recognized by the state of Maryland, had until April 9 to leave the area, but it’s still there. Tribe members hope they don’t have to leave at all.
Charles County commissioners will decide on Tuesday whether they will move forward with the eviction in civil court or pause the process at the plea of the Cedarville Band.
At the heart of the issue seems to be whether the tribe will allow the public to visit the site, including the cultural center. The county says state law requires leases for county-owned land to ensure public access. The Cedarville Band says it intends to keep the cultural center open to the public.
The county and the Cedarville Band have been negotiating a new lease agreement for almost three years when commissioners voted in a closed session to terminate the month-by-month tenancy. A statement from a county government spokesperson said discussions to “address and resolve the concerns of both parties” have been “unsuccessful.”
Proctor, who is the tribal chair for the Cedarville Band, said she thought they had settled when she signed a five-year lease on February of last year. She received an electronic notification that all parties had completed the agreement months later in October.
But the county insists that the commission did not sign the document. They sent a follow-up email in March of last year, asking the tribe to provide a list of events they held on the site or virtually between January 2019 and early 2022.
Nick Steiner, a staff attorney with American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the tribe found the letter offensive, but he maintains that the tribe will remain open for the public.
The optics of the county leasing land to an indigenous group that was there before the settlement of European colonizers was “already bad,” Steiner said. The eviction, he adds, is a “whole other level.” The Cedarville Band of Piscataway Indians reached out to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland after receiving the notice of eviction from the county in late January.
Iisaaksiichaa Ross Braine, a lecturer and doctoral candidate in the Department of American Indian Studies at University of Washington, said land ownership and the relationship between indigenous people and land is a “complex issue” that is “painful.”
Prior to the 1600s and 1700s, when large waves of white Europeans came to what is now known as the United States, Native American tribes held land communally with no concept of individual ownership, Braine, a member of the Apsáalooke Nation, explained.
”With the arrival of those European settlers the concept of private land ownership became that much more important,” Braine said, adding the U.S. government’s forced relocation of American Indians west of the Mississippi River beginning in 1830 disrupted their relationship with the land.
Braine said it is extremely frustrating for American Indians to find themselves in disputes over land that was originally theirs.
”I can almost say every single tribal nation — recognized and unrecognized is going through this,” he said. “Land use and ownership, simply access, that’s a huge thing. When we were forced onto reservations and out of the east our connection to sacred places was also severed. We may not own land in the eastern United States, but we have a connection there.”
The Cedarville Band has leased the land it is indigenous to since 1979, after their original cultural center burned to the ground. The 16 acres of land had been converted into and used as an anti-aircraft missile site and military base, but then it was abandoned. For years, the Piscataway people of Cedarville Band worked to revitalize and rehabilitate the area. The band has leased the land from the county for a $1 per year.
The Cedarville Band is “committed to the return of its sacred land,” according to Debra Gardner, legal director for Public Justice Center, a Maryland-based advocacy group that challenges poverty and racial inequality.
”What’s striking about this situation is how reminiscent it is of earlier times going back hundreds of years when the Piscataway and many other tribal nations were forced off their land by the colonial governments,” Gardner said. “I think we are very hopeful that Charles County will work with us — not to take these steps, not to repeat such torturous events and to create a new path that will give this land back to whom it rightly belongs.”
A spokesperson for the county government says the county recognizes the ties of the Cedarville Band to the Brandywine area. They stress that the county wants to have an indigenous group tending for the land.
“We remain committed to the land being used by the community for a public purpose,” Jennifer Harris, chief of media services for the Charles County government, said in a statement. Under state statute, the county cannot lease property that is only available for private use.
The Cedarville Band denies wanting to use the land for private use, according to its attorney. The group scaled back public events during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it says it still want to have the cultural center open for the public.
The county will explore options “on the most equitable and responsible way” to ensure opportunities for the cultural and historical preservation of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, according to their statement. Besides the Cedarville Band, the state recognizes the Piscataway Conoy and the Accohannock Indian tribes in the region.
“We share concerns that the Native American community has experienced the marginalization of its history, culture, and customs, and that has collectively caused undue harm to their tribes and people,” Harris said in the statement.
For years, the Cedarville Band held powwows in the land for Piscataway people and neighboring indigenous families. They sat around a fire, where the elders told stories of shared struggle and joy alike. Sometimes, someone would whip out their guitar, and if others happened to know the words, they joined and sang. They spent the night in tents and rose in the daylight to cook breakfast.
“These were the best days of my memories,” Natalie Standingontherock Proctor wrote in an email.
She stood on the grounds surrounded by people again. It was the day after the tribe was supposed to vacate the land, a day of loss and mourning.
“I am very grateful for all those who came out to support us during this time of mourning,” she said of the solemn event. “Even as I write to you my tears flow like a river. I can imagine how my ancestors felt every time this happened to them, and it happened over and over and over again.”
Each time she walked into the cultural center, she feels the presence of the Piscataway people that “pulled up their sleeves” and poured themselves into work to turn the building and land into their own.
“I hear their voices in the wind,” she said. “When I enter into our sacred circle I call their names to let them know they are not forgotten.”
John-John Williams IV contributed to this story.
This story’s photo captions have been updated to reflect that the Cedarville Band of the Piscataway Indians have been on the 16-acre land for more than 40 years.