Mayoral Musings: A Victory

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BRIDGETON, N.J. -

Local tribe wins fight to maintain status as a recognized tribal entity in New Jersey.

Every now and again it does the heart good to see a little justice done, especially when it involves an underdog. That’s exactly what happened recently for our brothers and sisters in the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe after a long and exhausting fight to maintain their status as a recognized tribal entity in the State of New Jersey. This fight with the State dates back to 2012 and the Christie administration. The larger fight, the one for dignity and the future, goes back a lot further.

But this shouldn’t have been a fight at all. I say that because since 1982, official New Jersey State recognition has been reaffirmed in many ways, including the NJ 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. But beginning in 2012, the decision was made to “reinterpret” a 2001 amendment to the law covering the state’s Commission on American Indian Affairs, which said any tribal entities seeking recognition after 2001 would need specific statutory authorization.

On the surface, it was about whether being “recognized” in connection with the tribe was different in substance from being “acknowledged,” and in 2012 this alleged difference was weaponized and used against the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape peoples. But my understanding and that of others is that the whole “recognized versus acknowledged” thing was about money, specifically the prospect that this bona fide tribe might get into the gaming business and somehow compete for revenues with the State.

It mattered little at the time that the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe is opposed to gambling on religious and moral grounds or that they memorialized this opposition in writing while also offering to have this prohibition written into a law or statute. It mattered even less that delegitimizing them as a bona fide tribal entity would endanger the very resources they need to address everything from diabetes and hypertension (common among native peoples) to food insecurity, education, and workforce training.

But now, thanks to the Murphy administration and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe has been affirmed and reaffirmed as a recognized bona fide tribal entity in the State of New Jersey. Beyond that, Attorney General Grewal withdrew and nullified any past statements questioning the Tribe’s status and this will be communicated to all of the relevant State and federal agencies. Finally, the State will provide some compensation to offset the financial losses suffered by the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe over the last six years because of their status being in doubt—and that’s no small thing.

Nanticoke Chief Mark Gould is a gracious warrior and he was true to form in victory. In addition to expressing gratitude to the administration on behalf of the Tribe, he was quick to extend thanks, in writing, to all those who provided material support, legal support, encouragement, and whatever else went into sustaining them to this outcome. He also thought of New Jersey’s other recognized tribes, the Powhatan-Renape and the Ramapough Mountain Indians, and how this might portend good things for them.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, thoughts turned to the future and how settling this issue in the Tribe’s favor will allow the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape leadership to focus on key issues affecting the lives of the many individuals and families that make up their people.

As mentioned previously, diabetes and hypertension are common among native peoples. For those on the margins, it is extremely difficult to access the proper nutrition and healthcare resources to either prevent or manage these conditions. Heart disease remains 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. So it is not too much to say that this battle to affirm or reaffirm their formal status, and by extension their access to federal resources, was truly one of life and death. 

A few years back when this fight was in mid-stream, I said that if Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe prospers and thrives, it benefits our entire area and our local economy because they are the original strand in the fabric of our community. It remains so today and I celebrate their victory with them. It was a battle well-fought and, stories of pilgrims and Indians notwithstanding, a victory that made this past Thanksgiving that much better.

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