Less than a year ago, Maryland granted state recognition to two groups of indigenous people proven to have existed continuously in the state since before 1790.
Gov. Martin O’Malley in January signed two historic executive orders that recognized three groups of Piscataway Indians, making them the first state-recognized tribes in Maryland history. Those tribes are the Piscataway Indian Nation and the Piscataway Conoy Confederacy, which includes the Cedarville Band of Piscataway.
The executive orders came after a decades-long struggle to secure historic records and prove the indigenous people lived in Maryland before Europeans settled. At least part of the delay resulted from a misunderstanding of Indian gaming, said Natalie Proctor, chairwoman of the Cedarville Band of Piscataway, which has a population of about 2,000.
The tribe “petitioned for state recognition almost 20 years ago,” Proctor said. “It was held up in litigation for at least 15 years of that time because the state was anti-gambling.”
According to Proctor, the state denied recognition to the Piscataway because it feared the tribes would pursue gaming.
“Because they were anti-gambling, anti-casino, they used that as a way to deny the Piscataway people their petition,” she said. “This has nothing to do with gaming. The two don’t go hand in hand.”
Now, five casinos exist in Maryland. None are operated by American Indians.
“As long as white people want casinos, it’s OK, and there are no issues about alcoholics and crimes,” Proctor said. “But if Indians want casinos, there are all these issues.”
American Indians make up about 0.5 percent of the total state population, according to the 2010 Census.
A referendum on the ballot this Election Day asks voters to weigh in on what could be the country’s most important vote in the gaming industry.
Maryland voters will have the final say in whether the state’s gambling industry will expand. Question 7 on the ballot asks voters to approve a sixth casino, table games at existing facilities and tax breaks for existing properties.
Question 7 reads as follows:
“Do you favor the expansion of commercial gaming in the State of Maryland for the primary purpose of raising revenue for education to authorize video lottery operation licensees to operate ‘table games’ as defined by law; to increase from 15,000 to 16,500 the maximum number of video lottery terminals that may be operated in the State; and to increase from 5 to 6 the maximum number of video lottery operation licenses that may be awarded in the State and allow a video lottery facility to operate in Prince George’s County?”
The state’s sixth casino is slated for National Harbor, located on the Potomac River and about 10 miles from the largest population of the Piscataway. The tribes’ traditional homelands are in Charles, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s counties. Most Piscataway live near Baltimore or Washington, D.C.
The Cedarville Band opposes gaming, said Proctor, who called the referendum “a slap in the face.”
“I’m so upset this is happening, that the casino idea is OK,” she said. “We’re still opposed to that and always will be opposed to that.”
The Piscataway Indian Nation does not have a position on gaming, Chief William Tayac said.
“We don’t have a casino, so we don’t have an official position on gaming,” he said. “They’re promising money, jobs and schools, but everything is really vague. There’s a lot of controversy back and forth.”
Approving the expansion also may influence future gaming endeavors put forth by the tribes, Tayac said.
“We’ll just have to see how it goes,” he said.
Millions of dollars of investment and campaign money is going into the proposed changes to Maryland law. The Washington Post reported that MGM Resorts, the company hoping to build the casino at National Harbor, has pumped $17.4 million into the project. On the other side, Penn National Gaming has contributed $21.6 million in advertising to fight the expansion plan.
The expansion promises to create thousands of jobs and generate an estimated $200 million in additional taxes every year.