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New Jersey tribe files lawsuit to reclaim ancestral lands

NEWARK, N.J. – A New Jersey tribe wants to reclaim its ancestral land and has filed a lawsuit against the state, asserting the state has broken every law regarding American Indians since 1858.

The lawsuit, filed by the Sand Hill Band of Lenape and Cherokee Indians, alleges that New Jersey’s charter wasn’t ratified until 1844, years after the state and its subdivisions had been formed, making “sales or relinquishment of petitioner’s land, right, privileges and amenities moot and null and void.”

The tribe has asked for a federal ruling on 14 counts to its lawsuit filed Feb. 17 in the U.S. District Court in Newark, including claims that the state has discriminated against the tribe and has failed to include any of its tribal members on the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs.

“Congress has never revoked any of our treaties,” said Ronald Yonaguska Holloway, the Sand Hill Band of Lenape and Cherokee Indians chairman. “After being stonewalled, we had to go to court. We’ve challenged the very fabric of New Jersey’s existence.”

The Sand Hill Band of Lenape and Cherokee Indians are descendants of the Delaware Tribe, once known as the Lenape Indians of New Jersey, before being sent to Oklahoma, Holloway said. When the majority of the Delaware tribe left for Oklahoma, he said the group that calls itself the Sand Hill Band did not leave and has continued since 1711 to live, practice its culture and function as a tribe in New Jersey. The Delaware Nation of Oklahoma does have knowledge of the Sand Hill Band and acknowledges its existence as a tribe, said Tamara Francis, Delaware Nation cultural preservation director.

“Congress has never cancelled any of our treaties, and our tribe is still in existence,” he said. This fact, he said, is the basis for the tribe’s lawsuit.

Lee Moore, spokesman for the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, said he had no comment about the lawsuit but that the state was served March 3.

The Sand Hill Band also accuses the state of New Jersey, Gov. Jon Corzine, Secretary of State Nina Wells and the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs of trying to erase the tribe’s history by failing to appoint any members of the tribe to the Indian commission and excluding the tribe from a 2007 report on the state’s Indians.

“They wrote us completely out of existence and said we didn’t exist as a people,” Holloway said.

The New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs appointments are decided by state code that does not include representatives from the Sand Hill Band.

“NJSA: 52:16A-53 states that the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs is authorized to consist of nine members: the secretary of state, serving ex officio, and eight public members,” said Susan Evans, New Jersey Department of State spokesperson.

The public members include two members each from the Nanticoke Lenni Lenape, Ramapough Mountain and Powhatan Renape tribes to be appointed by the governor based on the three tribes’ recommendations and the state Senate’s consent, Evans said.

She said the final public members include two Intertribal People, or American Indians residing in New Jersey who are enrolled members of a tribe recognized by another state or the federal government.

These two commission members will also be appointed by the governor based on Intertribal People recommendations and Senate consent, she said.

Though none of New Jersey’s tribes have been granted any form of state recognition through legislation, the Nanticoke Lenni Lenape, the Ramapough Mountain and the Powhatan Renape Indians were recognized in a governor’s resolution in 1980.

Still, all three tribes are considered legally unrecognized by New Jersey, which, according to Evans, does not have a recognition process for American Indian tribes.

In October 2008, an executive order was signed to create an advisory group that would assist in overseeing the N.J. Commission on American Indian Affairs as well as working to develop criteria for state recognition of all tribes in the state, she said.

Though the Sand Hill Band does not have state recognition, Holloway said his tribe is listed with the BIA as “federally recognized but unsupervised.”

Despite Holloway’s claim of federal recognition, BIA records don’t list the Sand Hill Band under its federally-recognized tribes. However, BIA records show that the tribe filed a letter of intent to seek federal recognition in 2007 as did the other three New Jersey tribes.

The Sand Hill Band of Lenape and Cherokee Indians tribe has some Cherokee members that joined the tribe in the 1700s, and the Sand Hill Band is the original indigenous tribe in the state for which U.S. treaties were written and the only New Jersey tribe with legitimate land claims, Holloway said.

“We are the only Indian tribe in New Jersey that can sell authentic Native American goods,” Holloway said.

Though, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board disputes the claim.

“We don’t have any official statement from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office indicating that there are officially state-recognized tribes by the state of New Jersey that would meet the definition of Indian tribe under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act Public Law 101-644,” said Meredith Stanton, Indian Arts and Crafts Board director.