Meet Native America: E. Keith Colston, Administrative Director for the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today. —Dennis Zotigh, NMAI
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
E. Keith Colston, administrative director for the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs.
Can you give us your Native name, its English translation and/or a nickname?
Ahsolte, given by Marty Richardson in the Tutelo language. It means blue. My family is Tuscarora and Lumbee.
What responsibilities do you have to the tribes of Maryland?
To direct, administer, and supervise the commission's program and activities; to assist the governor in an administrative manner between the Native communities and state government.
How is the commission set up?
The Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs (MCIA) was created by the Maryland General Assembly in 1976 to represent and serve the state's American Indian community. As the official statewide agency for American Indians, the commission initiates and supports a wide range of activities that promote the welfare of Maryland's Indian people and further the understanding of American Indian history and culture. The commission also operates for the state to provide both a forum for the concerns of Maryland's American Indian communities and a vital liaison between these communities and the state and federal governments.
How often are leaders chosen?
Commissioners are appointed by the governor to serve for three-year terms. Each indigenous community governs itself.
How often do the commissioners meet?
Commission meetings are public and take place six times a year.
How does the commission relate to the rest of the Maryland state government?
In 2008 we were moved from the Department of Human Resources (DHR) to the Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives (GOCI). It was an elevation for the MCIA.
What attractions are available for visitors on Maryland Native lands?
As a “state of firsts,” Maryland is full of history. If you consider the Chesapeake Bay Region and John Smith coming into contact with various tribal communities long ago, through to the recognition of the Piscataway people last year, you see that there is much to be gained from learning about the history and experience of Maryland's Native people.
What annual events does the commission sponsor?
We organize the American Indian Heritage Month Kickoff in Maryland for the first of November and the celebration of American Indian Heritage Day the fourth Friday of each November; in 2008 the Maryland House of Delegates voted to honor American Indian Heritage Day as a state holiday. We also host cultural competency training and lectures throughout the year. We assist communities with health, education, and economic development, as well as legislative issues and concerns, state policy, and procedure.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead?
I think the important values I've learned include to be culturally aware and respectful of all tribes, and the idea that Native Americans should not be complacent. My parents taught me to be proud, that it is wise to pick my battles, and that communication and education are keys to success.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I have had mentors in various aspects of society. My father and mother, Manuel and Nellie, and all the parents when I was growing up; Barry Richardson, who taught me about business; Georgeline Brushbreaker Sparks, who is a second mother to me, for her example of spirituality; and Talmadge Branch and Greg Richardson, for their commitment to Indian affairs.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
Where is your home community located? Where are your people originally from?
I grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina. My people were from Bertie County, North Carolina, and settled in Cumberland County.
What is a significant point in history from your people that you would like to share?
My family is part of the Tuscarora band that remained in North Carolina during the 18th century, rather than moving north and joining the Iroquois Confederacy. The Lumbee are the largest tribe in North Carolina.
Approximately how many members are in your home community?
Here in Baltimore the Lumbee number about 1500 to 2000.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
Knowing tribal history and having one parent who is a member of the tribe.
Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?
Yes, Tuscarora—skarure—is still spoken. I'm not sure of the percentage, but very few people speak fluently.
What annual events do your tribes sponsor?
What message would you like to share with Native youth?
Know who you are, so that no one can tell you what you should be. Know your history and keep your customs alive. Support each other, for there are few of us. Be great beyond measure.
To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below.
From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All images used with permission.