In the millennia before Europeans arrived in North America, the town now called Bridgeton, New Jersey was a hub for the Lenni-Lenape people who inhabited an area stretching from Delaware to Connecticut. Today, a building that serves as a trading post and tribal headquarters stands on Commerce Street. Its display windows are lined with traditional goods like drums, axes, and a buckskin dress.
A sign in the window informs would-be shoppers that the building is closed indefinitely. The tribe has no money to staff the office following a decision by the New Jersey government to disavow recognition of Native American groups in the state, resulting in the loss of contracts, grants, scholarships, and even the ability to label crafts as "American Indian made."
“I weave wampum belts and bracelets, an old tradition in our tribe, but I can no more label my belt American Indian made than a kindergartener making a macaroni necklace,” says Rev. John Norwood, a member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Council and principal justice of the Tribal Supreme Court. “This has been devastating for our people.”
The group is currently embroiled in dual state and federal lawsuits with the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General, seeking to force the state to honor a 1982 resolution passed by the legislature which granted recognition to the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, so-named after a merger with another local tribe, with the explicit purpose of qualification for federal funds.
For decades, the status of the tribe was unquestioned, referenced in numerous communications, statutes, and official actions, according to records compiled by the lawsuit. However, in 2011 the New Jersey Commission on Indian Affairs casually mentioned on a federal survey that the state lacked any state recognized tribes. Then the Lenape began to lose the benefits they had received for 30 years.
The state has sought dismissal of the lawsuits, claiming that the tribe had never been officially recognized in the first place because there was no specific statutory authorization and therefore the status could not have been unlawfully rescinded. Nevertheless, the suits have been given a green light to proceed in both state and federal court. The Attorney General's Office did not respond to request for comment. In the past, the office has declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.
The real motivation for the state’s action, says Greg Werkheiser, founding partner at Cultural Heritage Partners, the DC-based firm representing the Lenape pro bono, is an unfounded fear that the tribe will pursue gaming venues that could compete with existing casinos in New Jersey.
“This is a civil rights lawsuit,” Werkheiser says. “Due process was violated because there was no process for taking away the benefits they came to rely on for 30 years and there are equal protection claims because we're alleging that the only reason they're in this situation is racial stereotypes, that ‘Indian’ equals ‘casino.’”
Werkheiser says the Lenape have offered to put in writing that they will not pursue a casino and points out that tribal bylaws prohibit profiting from any form of vice including gaming. Nevertheless, the Chris Christie administration has stood its ground.
Notably, state recognition does not confer gaming rights anyway. That depends on official federal recognition, which has never applied to the Nanicoke Lenni-Lenape. “Many tribes that exist in Eastern states have not been federally recognized, but have some form of state recognition,” says Robert Anderson, director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law. “Most federal statutes only apply to federally recognized tribes, but certain things like the Indian Arts and Crafts Act and other things that deal with housing assistance and disabilities, professional development programs, and scholarship programs are available to state recognized tribes as well.” The process of how states recognize their tribes is up to each state.
The federal government recognizes 562 Indian Nations in the United States. And it has a process for extending recognition to more groups through anthropological, genealogical, and historical records. Unfortunately, a successful petition can take millions of dollars and decades of work, which makes it out of reach for the Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape, in part because many of their birth records were erased by racial purity practices.
The Lenni-Lenape, which means, roughly, “original man,” date their presence in New Jersey back some 12,000 years. The tribe hosted many of the first European arrivals from Holland, Sweden, Britain, and other nations. Warfare and disease soon eliminated many of the members, then more were pushed out of New Jersey, with descendants today living in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada.
For more than 150 years, the remaining Lenape in New Jersey kept a low profile. “It was dangerous to be identified as Indian, with removals, open hostility, and racial reassignment,” in which Native Americans were classified as free people of color or mulattos, Norwood says. “To maintain our community and try to survive persecution, discussion of tribal affairs was really held within the community.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s that some tribal leaders became more vocal about demanding rights from the government. In the early 1980s, New Jersey passed resolutions to recognize three groups: the Ramapough Tribe, the Powhatan Renape Nation, and the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation (the other two are not party to the lawsuit, but have also lost their recognition and would benefit from a Lenape victory).
Today, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape number only around 3,000 official members, but they have a rich influence in Eastern states. A small museum in the basement of the Bridgeton Library hosts a collection of over 30,000 arrowheads, pots, axeheads, and other artifacts found in the region. The legacy also includes many place names, including the island of Manhattan, that still use Lenape words.
Nevertheless, New Jersey’s current position is that the Lenape, effectively, do not exist. Tribe members continue to hold out hope that the incoming administration of Governor-elect Phil Murphy could reconsider the state’s stance. Murphy’s transition team did not respond to request for comment.
In the meantime, the Lenape are left in limbo. “I have watched elders who fought for recognition in the 80s see it pass through our fingers before they left this life,” Norwood says. “What the state of New Jersey has done is the continuation of breaking of treaties that have been an American legacy since the colonial era.”
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