January 08, 2016
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 people today. —Dennis Zotigh
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
My name is Francis Gray (Bear Clan), the eldest son of Charles and Regina Gray. I am currently the Tribal Chairman of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe.
Can you share your Native name and its English translation, or your nickname?
I have yet to receive a Piscataway name. When I do, it will be determined by how I exhibit my character within our tribal community.
Where is your tribal community located?
Currently our main core is located within the southern region of Maryland in Charles, Prince Georges, St. Mary’s, and Calvert counties.
Where is your tribe originally from?
We are the people from where the waters blend. This encompasses all of the area on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay from our northern boundary of the Patapsco River watershed (just south of Baltimore) extending south and west to the Potomac River watershed (to include the Virginia, District of Columbia, and Maryland tributary creeks) and west to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains.
What is a significant point in history from your tribe that you would like to share?
January 9, 2012, the date of the official re-establishment of the Piscataway Conoy people with the State of Maryland. Some people like to refer it as recognition. However, we have always been here, so that day actually reflects when our people and the State of Maryland reinvigorated a relationship that began over 300 years ago. This historic relationship is well documented in Maryland's rich history.
We, the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, formally revived our official, duly elected Tribal Council as our governing body and reinstituted a government-to-government relationship with Maryland. Today the Piscataway Conoy people continue to embrace our culture and traditional values.
How is your tribal government set up?
We have a Tribal Council made up of a seven members elected by our people based upon a democratic process.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Yes, we have traditional Clan Mothers and an Elders Council, as well.
How often does your Tribal Council meet?
The Tribal Council meets on a monthly basis.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your tribe?
As a young man, I was instilled with strong principles while growing up in our community—knowing who you are and where you came from and making those important connections of culture and relationships that define the Piscataway Conoy people. While traveling up and down the East Coast with my family, I interacted with other tribal nations and took part in the Trail of Self-Determination and the Longest Walk during the 1970s, to name a few important events.
I also witnessed the removal of a cinderblock structure that was built over one of our ancestral ossuaries located on National Park land. Inside this cinderblock structure, visitors could look through windows and view the bones of my ancestors which lay upon the ground. Schoolchildren and tourists would come and view these remains. In 1976, our tribal leadership requested that the National Park Service tear down this structure, and our demand was granted. The National Park Service demolished the blockhouse in the summer of 1976, and my elders reinterred the remains back into the ossuary.
These life experiences bring me here today.
What responsibilities do you have as tribal chairman?
I am responsible for bringing about positive change and moving the tribe forward while at the same time preserving our history. It is my focus to ensure the betterment of the tribe by making certain that the development of cultural awareness is a priority and to sustain a strong governing structure for our tribe’s present and future.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
Wow, naming just a few would not be justified as there are so many who have played important roles throughout different phases of my life. I can say my elders are my mentors, as well as other tribal leaders throughout Indian Country; I am honored and humbled by their being here with me. There is a constant theme as we progress through life that we must stand up and carry on what the elders have provided. We must protect it so that their efforts were and are not in vain.
Approximately how many members are in your tribe?
There are approximately 3,000 enrolled tribal members today.
What are the criteria to become a member of your tribe?
The criteria to become a tribal member are based upon genealogy. The Elders Council has a stringent process that determines one's eligibility.
What economic enterprises does your tribe own?
We currently do not have any economic enterprises, but we are working towards such endeavors. There are many Piscataway Conoy people who own successful businesses in almost every industry.
What annual events does your tribe sponsor?
We host several internal, cultural ceremonies, including the a Seed Gathering in early spring, a Feast from the Waters in early summer, and a Green Corn Festival in late summer, and we finish off our year paying tribute and celebrating our elders (Elders Dinner). When we are contacted, we also host many tribal nations coming to the Washington area from as far away as Hawaii.
Chairman Gray holding a ceramic bowl made by his ancestors and dating to between 2500 and 3000 BC. Archaeological surveys show that Native peoples have lived in the area for more than 10,000 years. Celebration marking the 125th anniversary of the establishment of the Naval Support Facility at Indian Head, September 2015, Charles County, Maryland.
What attractions are available for visitors on your land?
There are a few attractions all within an hour-and-a half drive south of Washington. Jefferson Patterson Park on the south end of the Patuxent River in Calvert County, Maryland, displays a Piscataway Conoy village. Historic St. Mary’s City, in St. Mary's County, also has a Piscataway Conoy village. Piscataway Park in Accokeek, Maryland, is only a half hour south of Washington in Prince Georges County. These are a few of the attractions that are rich in our culture.
How does your tribe deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?
Our interaction with the federal government has always been somewhat schizophrenic. At times our tribe received federal funding for instituting Indian education programs in the local county school systems. In the past we have received job placement grants to help reduce the unemployment rate in our community and to teach our members marketable employment skills. And we received grants to help address other needs within our tribal community. Our individual tribal members have been eligible to receive federal funding for college scholarships based upon both need and merit. Then, administrations changed and the eligibility criteria in federal programs became more restrictive, creating a situation in which we have less direct interface than at other times during our recent history.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your tribe?
I would want to ensure that our youth truly understand all of the efforts that generations of our ancestors expended to retain our identity and culture as Native people. When I was growing up in our historical homeland in southern Maryland, like many generations of Piscataway Conoy before me, we were a third race in a two-race society. Prior to the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, we had little opportunity to tell our story. As a tribe we were not included in official state demographics. But our ancestors persevered in the face of this onslaught upon our identity.
I want our youth to know that following the traditional ways for over 13,000 years has sustained our tribe over the last 400 years of European, Colonial, and American control. I want our youth to know that learning, practicing, and embracing the traditional ways will be our path to a brighter future.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
As tribal hosts to indigenous nations who visit our historical homeland (which includes Washington and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian), the Piscataway Conoy people are proud to see Native people from the Western Hemisphere come to this area and experience the beauty of the natural world here. My ancestors enjoyed and preserved this part of the world for so many thousands of years. As tribal people, we no longer have physical control over our historic homelands, but we retain the stories, the legends, and the relationships with the lands and waters that make us who we are today, "The People from Where Waters Blend."
Photos courtesy of the Piscataway Conoy Tribe, used with permission.
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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 photos used with permission.