Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe Takes on State

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For the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe, it’s been a tale of woe, with a recent battle to regain state recognition.

The Lenni-Lenape tribe may be indigenous to New Jersey, but its identity now hinges on a legal battle with the state and the federal government over what it claims is a withdrawal of its official state recognition in 2012.

The 3,000-member Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe, which is headquartered in Bridgeton, filed a federal lawsuit in July 2015 and another in New Jersey Superior Court three months later. The two cases have since leapfrogged through a series of dismissal attempts.

The tribe, which has said that it had been granted state recognition in 1982, is represented pro bono by Gregory Werkheiser and Eden Burgess of Cultural Heritage Partners, a firm based in Richmond, Virginia, and Frank Corrado of Barry, Corrado and Grassi of Wildwood.

In a recent phone interview with SNJ Today, Werkheiser, who first represented the tribe in the early 2000s, explained that after the Lenape contacted him about the state recognition issue, a resolution was sought. “We tried for almost two years to get [Gov. Chris Christie’s] administration to explain what it was up to, and they got very close to resolving it,” he said.

Werkheiser explained that seven or eight drafts of a letter of retraction passed back and forth between him and the offices of the or and Attorney General. 

“Just as that letter was about to be signed, that’s when Bridgegate broke,” he said, referring to the 2013 lane-closing scandal on the George Washington Bridge. “As a consequence, we could not get anyone to pay attention to this for nine months. No one would return calls. By the time we got them to pay attention again, there was a different Attorney General, there was a different staff and we had to start the whole process over again. And it just became so frustrating that ultimately we decided the only way to resolve it was to have to sue. We were running up against time limits, too, so we had no choice but to sue in both state and federal court.”

Alleging violations of both the New Jersey Constitution and the U.S. Constitution, according to the Cultural Heritage Partners website, the Lenape claim that the New Jersey Attorney General “has unilaterally attempted to undermine the tribe’s status as a state-recognized tribe.” 

Werkheiser explained that the federal suit is “not asking for any financial compensation for the damage done to the tribe. We’re asking for, basically, non-monetary relief. We’re asking the court to tell the state to stop denying that there are tribes in New Jersey. And in the state case, we’re asking for that as well, but we’re also asking for financial damages to help get the tribe back on track.” 

This year, on July 10, the Superior Court suit landed its first victory when a three-judge panel of the Appellate Division allowed the case to move forward after it was sidelined in March 2016 when Judge William Anklowitz dismissed the lawsuit. 

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According to the New Jersey Law Journal, “Appellate Division Judges Mitchel Ostrer, George Leone and Francis Vernoia said…that Mercer County Superior Court Judge William Anklowitz erred when he ruled that the tribe never received recognition since the state never passed a statute granting that status. The appeals court said that since 1982, the state has passed a number of resolutions and has created various commissions clearly recognizing the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape as an American Indian tribe.”

Last October, the federal suit also faced with a similar threat of dismissal, was allowed to proceed when U.S. District Court Judge Renee Marie Bumb ruled against the state’s motion to dismiss.       

The Unalachtigo Lenape are reported to be the early inhabitants of today’s Cumberland County. The Nanticoke, who joined the Lenape, migrated to South Jersey from Delaware and Maryland in the 1700s.  

Online sources identify that the Unalachtigo, whose name means “People Who Live Near the Ocean,” settled in the South Jersey area from north of Camden to the Delaware Bay. It has been estimated that around 10,000 Lenni-Lenape lived in New Jersey when Europeans began to settle here in the 17th century, and it’s believed about 600 Lenape may have been living in the Cumberland County region at that time. 

Over the past year, reports in the media have associated gaming rights with Native American state recognition, but the Lenape tribe has long opposed such a notion, clearly stating on its website that it prohibits casino gaming.

“The vast majority of tribes in this country do not have and, in fact, do not want gaming,” Werkheiser affirmed. “And state recognition gives you zero ability to get federal gaming rights.”

For the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe, it’s been a tale of woe, with a recent battle to regain state recognition.In 2008, Rev. John Norwood, a tribal council member of the Nanticoke, told The Grapevine, “Our law forbids us from pursuing casino gaming,” adding that these restrictions have had a positive long-term effect on the community. “We look at the spiritual impact,” he said.

The answering machine at the Lenape Bridgeton headquarters currently informs callers that “the office is now closed indefinitely.” Werkheiser attributed the shuttering of the office, which occurred months ago, to financial injury resulting from the state recognition issue. 

“It’s on the long list of harms that have resulted since 2012,” he said. “When the state started making it public that it had reached this new conclusion that there were no state-recognized tribes, and as that has worked its way through, it’s meant that they’ve lost out on business contracts and other things that have had a huge bottom-line impact on the tribe. As a consequence, they’re cutting everything they can—jobs, office hours, everything else.”

When asked to estimate how much the tribe has lost financially since 2012, Werkheiser responded, “It’s now well into the millions of dollars,” citing as additional losses college scholarships, grants for diabetes care and the right to label the tribe’s arts and crafts as “Indian made.”

But Werkheiser hopes to be in trial before the end of the year for both cases. “This is moving quickly,” he said, “and it’s going to start moving more quickly now.”

Recommended: Lenni-Lenape Lawsuit Win Brings Tribe Closer to State Recognition

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