Opinion: Having Their Day in Court

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The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape will have just that, and a ruling could lead to essential funding.

About this time last year, I discussed the efforts of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indian (NLLI) peoples in our area, to gain formal bona fide recognition of their tribal nation by the State of New Jersey. Those efforts have taken many twists and turns, with perhaps more to come, but right now the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape will have their day in court.

Lenni Lenape Lawsuit 2017 That’s because a few weeks back on July 10, a state appeals court reversed the lower court ruling that dismissed the Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation’s lawsuit, filed a couple of years ago, against acting attorney John Hoffman.

If you recall, in 1982 the New Jersey legislature, via concurrent resolution, officially recognized the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. Part of the process of being officially recognized involved providing genealogical records, showing self-government, and other evidence demonstrating them as a bona fide nation.

This recognition is a matter of surviving in today’s world because such recognition makes tribal nations eligible to receive a significant amount of grant funding to address a variety of issues impacting native peoples including food insecurity, health outcomes, education, workforce training and readiness, and cultural programs.

As I wrote last year, since 1982 official state recognition had been reaffirmed in various ways including the state’s Commission on American Indian Affairs in 1995, the NJ Secretary of State in 2000, court proceedings in 2005, and a state committee on Native American affairs in 2007.

That recognition was challenged in 2016 because some at the state level decided to “reinterpret” a 2001 amendment to the law covering the state’s Commission on American Indian Affairs which says that any new tribes seeking recognition after 2001 would need specific statutory authorization.

The implication of this “reinterpretation” is that the Nanticoke Lenni-Lanape Nation would essentially be starting from scratch which, aside from being more than unfair, would mean far more time which risks the future well-being of their members who would not have the resources that such recognition makes possible.

VIDEO: Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe Suing NJ State Officials

In the case of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape peoples, it comes down to whether “recognize” is substantially different than “acknowledge” and that is really what’s at the heart of this current issue. The ruling on July 10 doesn’t mean they have prevailed; it only means that they can move ahead with their legal action in an effort to prevail. So we need to stay engaged and we need to keep supporting the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation. This might come in the form of monetary support to help them fund their legal battle, but also through vocal advocacy.

It is worthy of a tiny celebration because I imagine that the number of times native peoples have been denied access to an impartial court or had the courts work against them even for basic justice and decency throughout this nation’s history is a staggering number to consider.

That aside, they will have their day in court and an opportunity to demonstrate that they have already been recognized, acknowledged, and affirmed—and every combination of these—for quite some time now. This is important not just for them, but for our community as well.

As mentioned earlier, allowing the NLLI’s previous recognition to stand means they are eligible to receive significant amounts of grant funding to address critical issues impacting their members such education, employment and workforce training, health, and food insecurity. If they prosper and thrive, it will be to the benefit of our entire area and our local economy because they are the original strand in what is the fabric of our community; all of us will benefit from their success and be positively impacted by the contributions their success will enable.

My hope is that having their day in court will allow this matter to be settled once and for all in their favor so that they can use their time, energy, and talent securing the resources they need to deal with the issues at hand. Even as we speak, heart disease is the leading cause of death among native peoples and they have a greater chance of having diabetes than any other racial group, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The NLLI will have their day in court and success there means they’ll have a shot at the resources to address these life and death issues. 


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