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Pennsylvania legislators halt proposal for commission

HARRISBURG, Pa. - Years of efforts to form a Commission of Native American Affairs in the state of Pennsylvania came to a grinding halt when the Oklahoma Delaware Indians brought a joint land claim to at least 315 acres on the hills above Easton near the Delaware River.

Citing land in Tatamy Borough was granted to Delaware Chief Tatamy and never legally transferred when they were forced to leave in the 1800s, the Delaware Tribe of Indians of Bartlesville and the Delaware Nation of Anadarko recently announced intentions to work out a gambling contract with Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania does not recognize any Indian tribes. The U.S. Census estimates there are currently 19,000 American Indians living in the state, many of whom have recognition in their home states. Many others are descended from the original Lenape people and remained in the state unrecognized.

The Delaware, known as the Lenape Indians, were forced westward to the Wyoming Valley, to the Allegheny and then to eastern Ohio in the 18th century. Under pressure and due to wars, some fled westward to Oklahoma and today number about 12,000. Others went north to Ontario where their descendants now live on two recognized reservations.

Several hundred Lenape families remained on the homeland. Their descendants have been petitioning the state for recognition.

The issue has become moot, said Rep. Paul Clymer (D-145). Clymer and Rep. Louise Bishop (R-192) have been working on legislation that would establish a Commission of Native American Affairs and holding public hearings with the state's Native population for several years.

"How do we adopt these tribes without worrying about a problem down the line," said Clymer. Referring to the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, he said, "This generation is straightforward. But the future generations may have a different attitude toward gambling."

Clymer said the Commission, once established, would then investigate what tribes the state should recognize as legitimately indigenous.

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The proposed bill drafted in January would recognize all bands, clans, tribes and nations indigenous to the state through a Commission created within the Department of Community and Economic Development. Seven members would be appointed by the governor for six-year terms. Four commissioners would be Indian. The Commission would establish a process of recognition which includes groups being descendants from a nation which existed before 1790, inhabited a specific area in Pennsylvania and are not recognized in other states.

The bill, had it been voted, would have been put into effect in July.

"We're putting it on hold," said Clymer. "How do we discern the legitimate original inhabitatants and not be challenged by everyone wanting to place a claim in Pennsylvania."

A number of Native American tribes have submitted ancestral claims to the Commonwealth. The Office of General Counsel will be reviewing each claim.

Gov. Rendell said he will oppose the Oklahoma tribes claim. Pennsylvania does not have any Indian gambling ventures, but is considering adding slot machines to its racetracks to supplement education plans and reduce local taxes.

The federal court will be deciding the Oklahoma claim or a swap for the land which is being aimed at property now occupied by Binney & Smith's Crayola factory and about 25 homes.

Chief Joe Brooks of the Delaware Tribe declined comment about the case or the type of gambling the tribes are considering. Casino developers approached the tribes regularly offering large cash sums in exchange for a percent of casino revenues for the first five to seven years of operation. Four years ago the tribe voted to pursue gambling revenues and outside investors are funding the lobbying effort.

The tribes do not currently run gambling operations other than bingo. A land claim and efforts to secure gaming rights in Kansas City, Kan., where the Delaware had a reservation until 1867, is pending.