The Nantikoke Lenni-Lenapes' larger fight, the one for their dignity and their future, goes back a lot further than a six-year old dispute.
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 last month for our Native American brothers and sisters in the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, when they won a long and exhausting fight to maintain their status as a recognized tribal entity in the State of New Jersey.
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The recent fight between the Cumberland County-based tribe and the state goes back to 2012 and former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. The Lenni-Lenapes’ larger fight, the one for their dignity and their future, goes back a lot further.
But, the tiff during the Christie years shouldn’t have been a fight at all. This is because official New Jersey state recognition was granted to the tribe in 1982 and had been reaffirmed several times since then. The authorization was backed by the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs in 1995, by the New Jersey secretary of state in 2000, during court proceedings in 2005, and by a state committee on Native American affairs in 2007. But in 2012, a decision was made to “reinterpret” a 2001 amendment to the state law covering the state’s Commission on American Indian Affairs. It stated that which said any tribal entities seeking recognition after 2001 needed specific statutory authorization.
On the surface, it was about whether being “recognized” was different in substance from being “acknowledged,” and starting in 2012, this alleged difference was weaponized and used against the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people. My take and that of many others is that the whole recognized-versus-acknowledged thing was about money. Specifically, there was concern over the prospect that this bona fide tribe might get into the gaming business and compete for revenue with casinos that are overseen and taxed by the state.
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It mattered little at the time that the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Nation is opposed to gambling on religious and moral grounds, that the tribe memorialized this opposition in writing, and offered to have a gaming prohibition written into a law or statute. It mattered even less that delegitimizing the tribe endangered the very resources they need to address everything from diabetes and hypertension — both common among native peoples — to food insecurity, education and workforce training.
Now, thanks to Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration and state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape have been reaffirmed as a recognized, bona fide tribal entity. Beyond that, Grewal withdrew and nullified any past statements questioning the tribe’s status, an action that will be communicated to all relevant state and federal agencies. Finally, in settling a lawsuit filed by the Lenni-Lenape, the state government will will pay the tribe $2.4 million to offset financial losses related to questions about the tribal nation’s status. The lack of recognition barred members from receiving certain government benefits and prevented them from selling some craft items as authentically American Indian.
Tribal Chairman and Principal Chief Mark Gould was true to his gracious form in reacting to the victory. In addition to expressing gratitude to the administration on behalf of the tribe, he was quick to extend thanks to all those who provided legal support, encouragement and whatever else went into sustaining them until this outcome. He also thought of New Jersey’s other state-recognized tribes, the Powhatan-Renape and the Ramapough Mountain Indians, and how this might portend good things for them, as well.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, thoughts turned to how settling the dispute 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.
For those on the margins, it is extremely difficult to access the proper nutrition and health care resources to prevent or manage these conditions. In addition to the diabetes and hypertension mentioned above, heart disease remains the leading cause of death among native peoples. So, it is not too much to say that this battle to restore their formal status and, by extension, their access to federal resources, was truly a life-and-death struggle.
Earlier, when this fight was still ongoing, I said that if Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation prospers and thrives, it benefits our entire area and our local economy. 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 well-fought battle, and stories of pilgrims and Indians notwithstanding, a victory that made this past Thanksgiving that much better.
Albert B. Kelly is mayor of Bridgeton. Contact him by phone at 856-455-3230 Ext. 200.
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