NJ Superior Court Rules Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape are Sovereign Tribe
Lisa J. Ellwood
Judge rules Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape’s civil rights violation lawsuit against the state of New Jersey for denying its status can proceed
In the latest round of Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation vs New Jersey, the Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division reversed a Superior Court of New Jersey Law Division decision to dismiss the tribe’s case, thereby giving the 3,000-member
Tribal Nation a green light to proceed in its civil rights lawsuit against New Jersey’s Attorney General John Hoffman, who told the federal government that the tribe was not considered a “recognized” tribal nation.
The Appellate Court also ruled and publicly affirmed that the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation are “a constitutionally organized, self-governing, inherently sovereign American Indian tribe.”
How did it get here?
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, Powhatan Renape, and Ramapough Lenape have been recognized by the state of New Jersey for 35 or more years. The Nanticoke-Lenape, whose 3,000 citizens are economically distressed, relied on basic federal benefits tied to its status, including grants for diabetes care and education, and the ability to label their crafts as “Indian made.”
This changed for the worst in 2012, thanks to a two-sentence email sent by a staffer at the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs to the federal government’s General Accounting Office in 2011. The email incorrectly said New Jersey had no recognized tribes. The situation was further inflamed by then-acting AG Hoffman, who told the federal government that the tribe was not considered a “recognized” tribal nation.
Former AG Hoffman is named as a co-defendant in the lawsuit. This resulted in the federal government considering all three New Jersey tribes to just be “social groupings” without formal state recognition.
NJTV News YouTube Screen Capture
NJTV News Covers the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Pow Wow in 2016.
In July 2015, the tribe filed a five-count civil rights complaint alleging that the New Jersey Attorney General “violated its civil rights under the New Jersey Constitution and breached duties imposed under the common law”. The tribe had also alleged that the AG’s actions “have and will deprive it of benefits under various federal statutes and programs.”
“This is not just about the tribe’s ability to economically sustain itself, it’s about their dignity and it’s about — after 200 years of being treated terribly by the colonies and then by the state – there was a period beginning in the 80s where the relationship turned,” Gregory Werkheiser, a civil rights attorney with Cultural Heritage Partners representing the tribe, explained to NJ.com.
“We are in the midst of an incredible national conversation about race in this country and, by and large, it’s a mature conversation. That is not the case today in New Jersey, where this administration is simply closing its eyes and pretending whole swaths of people do not exist.”
The lawsuit further alleged that the reason the Nanticoke-Lenape were now not being recognized is due to a “racial-stereotype-driven and irrational fear that any American Indian Tribe, if recognized as such, will seek to conduct gaming in competition with New Jersey’s politically powerful non-Indian gaming interests.”
The Federal court ruled in the tribe’s favor in October 2016. The Superior Court of New Jersey Law Division, on the other hand, approved the New Jersey AG’s request to dismiss the tribe’s complaint. The Superior Court of New Jersey Appellate Division reversed the dismissal last month.
With this reversal the tribe is now actively pursuing active cases in both the federal and New Jersey courts. The outcome was and still is very important because federal laws like the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990 contain provisions that apply to state-recognized tribes and their members.
The denials about its status have left the tribe with a great deal of uncertainty and “devastating economic and social consequences,” according to the lawsuit.
In a 2015 discussion regarding “real“ vs. “fake” tribes, Dr. Nicky Michael, councilwoman of the federally recognized Lenape tribe The Delaware Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma told the Daily Beast, “The Nanticoke [in New Jersey] do have Native blood and are real.”
Ironically, as the Nanticoke-Lenape carried on with their struggle with the State of New Jersey, “the Nanticoke Indian Tribe and its sister tribe the Lenni-Lenape [of Delaware] had something special to honor during the 39th annual Nanticoke Pow Wow [in September 2016]—formal [State] recognition of their status as Tribes.”
For more information on the Nanticoke-Lenape Tribal Nation, visit their tribal government website. You can download the free e-Book We Are Still Here… The Tribal Saga of New Jersey’s Nanticoke and Lenape Indians or “The Incomplete Loom: Exploring Checkered Past & Present of American Indian Sovereignty” Rutgers Law Review Legal Note. You can also visit the online Nanticoke and Lenape Confederation Learning Center and Museum.