Unalachtigo Band of Lenni Lenape seeks acknowledgment

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PHILADELPHIA – The chief of a tiny Indian tribe that is struggling for acknowledgment hobnobbed with some of the most experienced and high powered federal judges, telling his tribe’s story, during a black tie dinner at the 2009 Third Circuit Judicial Conference.

The conference took place at the Hyatt Regency at Penn’s Landing May 4 – 6. It was the Third Circuit’s 68th Judicial Conference and all attorneys admitted to practice in the circuit were invited to attend.

That’s why James Brent Thomas, the chief of the 50-member Unalachtigo Band of Lenni Lenape Indians, planned to attend as tribal attorney along with the Unalachtigo tribal court’s chief.

“We wanted to participate and attend the entire conference and we submitted a request for credentials and for a waiver of the fee, because we couldn’t afford the $800 conference fees, but they declined to provide us with free credentials,” he said.

Nevertheless, Thomas donned his tuxedo and black tie and attended a reception sponsored by the Third Circuit Bar Association on the first night of the conference. At the reception, Thomas was invited to have dinner with judges from the western delegation of Pennsylvania.

Speakers at the conference included Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr.; Supreme Court Associate Justice David H. Souter; former Solicitors General Paul D. Clement, Walter Dellinger, Theodore B. Olson and Seth P. Waxman; Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille; New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner; Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Myron T. Steele; and many more.

Roberts was the featured speaker at the dinner.

“Justice Roberts gave a tremendous speech where he compared himself to Justice Marshall,” Thomas said.

He said the evening yielded two benefits.

The first was a meeting with New Jersey U.S. District Court Senior Judge Stanley Brotman, who settled a dispute a few years ago between the Unalachtigos and their “cousin” tribe, the Nanticoke Lenni Lenape Tribe.

“The state is trying to make us invisible by writing us out of our history, but Justice Brotman was the only man that wouldn’t allow them to do that. He is very gracious. That’s why I was so happy to see him,” Thomas said.

The other benefit was “the opportunity to share our story with many of the federal judges, lawyers and other decision makers in the Third Circuit and beyond, and bring to light our efforts to resolve our struggles through the federal court process.”

Thomas’ tribe, which is neither state nor federally recognized, is embroiled in a number of legal actions. The tribe has filed land claims in federal court for 3,044 acres in central New Jersey based on a 1758 treaty and the violation of the 1790 Non-Intercourse Act. In addition, Thomas has filed two hate crime lawsuits in the same federal district court. The tribe is also fighting the state’s attempt to evict his 78-year-old mother from public housing.

And last month, the tribe sent a bill to New Jersey Gov. John Corzine for $37.8 million in back taxes on the 3,044 acres.

“We want all the cases to be combined and disposed of at the same time because they all flow from the same question of whether or not we have the right to be on the land and sovereign right to govern ourselves and, ultimately, provide a high quality of life for our people,” Thomas said.

The federal court ruled last May that the Unalachtigo Tribe and the Stockbridge Munsee Tribe, which also claims the land, have not proven they are the proper successors to the 1758 treaty.

The Unalachtigos appealed to the Third Circuit, which ordered the tribe to get an attorney or the appeal would be dismissed.

Although, just two years ago the tribe had large plans for a $5 billion gaming resort and residential community, Thomas said the tribe is poverty-stricken, has no financial backers, and gaming is off the table now.

All of the tribe’s legal briefs are written and defended by Thomas, who acquired his skills in legal argument during a brief jail sentence in 1990.

The case was dismissed, but Thomas has filed a motion for reinstatement and so far has unsuccessfully sought pro bono representation.

But Thomas is determined to move forward.

“We’re hoping that Chief Justice Anthony Sirica, the head of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, will take this case on himself.”