BLACK CREEK, N.J. - Bulldozers will no longer threaten a historic campsite
showing 10,000 years of Native occupation, say lawyers for the Nanticoke
Lenni Lenape people.
A three-judge appellate panel of the New Jersey Superior Court recently
upheld preservation of the site, achieved through its last-minute entry on
the New Jersey Register of Historic Places. The township of Vernon had
appealed the listing by the state Department of Environmental Protection,
which blocked plans to raze part of the site for a town park and ball
The township had pushed development of a 180-acre town recreational complex
that included a 40-acre tract rich in Native artifacts by what in ages past
was probably a prime campsite along a local creek. Protection of the site
grew into a regional issue, attracting Indian activists to protect marches
and bringing widely-dispersed bands of the Lenni Lenape, also known as
Delaware, back into common action. A meeting of the East Coast Lenape with
the federally recognized Delaware tribe of Oklahoma and the Delawares of
Canada was considered to be their first joint session in 300 years.
The April 16 ruling was the latest, and probably the last, of 14 court
actions over the site, said Gregory Werkheiser, the young attorney who has
represented the Lenni Lenape pro bono for two and a half years. He said the
township could technically still appeal to the state Supreme Court, "but
functionally speaking, we've moved beyond that.
"We've moved to the point where negotiations between the township, the
state and the tribe are ongoing to make everybody happy."
Werkheiser said the ruling could have great significance, both for
administrative law in New Jersey and for tribal cultural preservation
fights across the country. He said it was the first challenge to a historic
preservation listing under New Jersey law, and the decision upheld the
state across the board. The court, he said, "held that the commissioner's
decision was lawful, timely, fully within his discretion and consistent
with the requirements of due process."
The then-newly appointed Environmental Protection Commissioner Bradley
Campbell placed the Black Creek Native American site on the state Historic
Register on April 1, 2002, just hours before the Vernon Township Council
met to award a contract to construct football fields on the site.
Werkheiser said it was the first time the Register had been used to protect
a Native site.
The decision was one of several last-minute rescues in a long-running
controversy, which flared in 2001 when town officers sent a bulldozer to
dig a trench at the site and then arrested local archaeologist Rick
Patterson when he tried to inspect the damage. Patterson had been exploring
the site for 10 years, identifying artifacts from each major archaeological
period as far back as 10,000 years. He joined with local Lenni Lenape
leaders in proposing the historic listing to a state review board, which
agreed with its importance.
"I'm grateful that the court has vindicated our efforts to save a precious
resource from destruction," said Commissioner Campbell.
"New Jersey could have lost thousands of years of Native American history.
We always support local community efforts to develop recreational spaces
but it need not come at the expense of other local treasures like the Black
Creek Native American site."
Uri Ridgeway, a leader of the Nanticoke Lenni Lenape, said he hoped the
struggle would help reunify the Lenape Nation, which many East Coast tribes
consider to be the "grandfather" tribe of the region. During the effort,
Dee Ketchum, chief of the Delaware Tribe of Indians based in Bartlesville,
Okla., wrote to the mayor of Vernon, saying that although his tribe of
11,000 was long gone from the area "we still look on it as our homeland."
The decision ended a long journey for Werkheiser too, who took on the case
just six months after passing his bar exams, and saw if grow into one-third
of his entire legal career. He said that an uncle who knew some of the
archaeologists involved had called him for help and told him it would only
take a short while. After several thousand hours of work along with
co-counsel Deborah Israel, Werkheiser said, "I'm relieved I'm still
speaking to my uncle."