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Lenape win state support to help preserve ancient site

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TRENTON, N.J. ? Lenni Lenape tribes are celebrating a major win in their long-running fight to preserve a 10,000-year-old archaeological site threatened by a town government's plans to build a baseball field.

The New Jersey State Review Board for Historic Sites voted 6-2 Dec. 5 to recommend preservation of the Black Creek Site in Vernon Township. Defenders of the site crowded the meeting. They now hope for quick action from the state commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection in listing Black Creek on the state Register of Historic Places.

"The board's decision is a tremendous victory for not only the Lenape people, but for all the citizens of Vernon and New Jersey," said Mark Gould, chief of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey. "Black Creek holds great meaning for our people and can reveal much to the citizens of Vernon and visitors about those who lived there before them."

The 23-acre site at the confluence of two streams abounds in artifacts showing continuous habitation over 10 millennia. Lenape descendants and tribes throughout the region were outraged last summer by the apparent determination of the Vernon town government to bulldoze the area as part of a recreational complex. The National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution to defend the site at its recent annual meeting.

The Black Creek site is part of 183 acres purchased by Vernon for about $1 million for a proposed Maple Grange Community Park. Local historians and archaeologists argued the town could relocate the playing fields to another part of the park and preserve the historic area for education.

"So few important Native sites in New Jersey have been saved," said Rick Patterson, a local archaeologist who studied the site for years and collected thousands of artifacts. "Black Creek is vital to future generations who will search for its stories."

"This decision allows the community to move forward with building recreational fields for the citizens of Vernon, a move we continue to support, while preserving this land," said Urie Ridgeway, a member of the Nanticoke Tribal Council.

Ridgeway said the campaign to save Black Creek helped bring together scattered descendants of the Lenape, considered one of the oldest tribes on the East Coast. Among the 80 people at the hearing were the chiefs of four regional bands, Walter Van Dunk of the Ramapough Indians, Gould of the Nanticokes, Dennis Coaker of the Lenape Tribe of Delaware and Bob Red Hawk of the Eastern Band of Lenape.

The Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma wrote in support of the campaign. Unlike the New Jersey tribes, the Delawares are federally recognized with nearly 11,000 members. Chief Dee Ketchum wrote Vernon Mayor John Logan that if he carried out his plans, "not only will you have destroyed something very important to our people, but in the process you may have built a ball field on the bones of our ancestors."

Ridgeway thanked tribes through Indian country which supported the campaign and especially the NCAI for its resolution. Delegations of Northeast Indians came to Vernon during the summer for peaceful marches and encampments that were well attended by sympathetic townspeople.

Ridgeway warned that town politicians were still fighting preservation through a bill in the state Legislature. The measure, on the calendar of the State Assembly, would require a local government to give its approval for Historic Register listing of land it owned. "If it passed, we would have our hands tied," Ridgeway said.

He said it was possible the DEP commissioner would delay the Black Creek listing until the fate of the bill was decided.

The Vernon town government has taken measures that its opponents consider extreme. Patterson, the local archaeologist, went to court for an injunction in June when he heard that the town had begun to dig a trench in the historic area. When he took two reporters to the site the next day to show them the damage, town police arrested the group for trespassing.

Patterson ultimately took responsibility for the trespass and paid a $150 fine. A family member said he was promptly reimbursed by the two newspapers.