Ramapough Lenape and Powhatan Renape Nations of New Jersey have state recognition reaffirmed
Lisa J. Ellwood
The Ramapough Lenape Nation and Powhatan Renape Nation had their state recognition reaffirmed March 18 by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. Both nations were officially recognized as Native American tribes by New Jersey beginning in 1980 according to two settlement agreements signed by the tribes and the Attorney General.
The settlement agreements come in the wake of the state’s largest tribe—the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation — winning their six-year federal and state civil rights battles. The tribe filed a complaint alleging that former New Jersey Attorney General Hoffman “violated its civil rights under the New Jersey [and the United States] Constitution and breached duties imposed under the common law” in undermining its status. The tribe had also alleged that the Attorney General’s actions “have and will deprive it of benefits under various federal statutes and programs.”
Greg Werkheiser of Cultural Heritage Partners, PLLC, legal counsel for the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, observed, "Because the three tribes were so similarly recognized and then mistreated, it only makes sense that all three should now see their recognition reaffirmed and share in a better future.”
Though the tribes lost status, all three continued to hold seats and be active on the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs throughout their legal and political turmoil.
How did it get here?
The Ramapough Lenape Nation, Powhatan Renape Nation, and Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation have been recognized by the state of New Jersey for more than 35 years.
Their collective troubles began 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 incorrectly stating that New Jersey had no recognized tribes. The situation was further aggravated by then-acting Attorney General Hoffman, who told the federal government that the tribes were not considered “recognized” tribal nations. This resulted in the federal government considering all three New Jersey tribes to be mere “social groupings” without formal state recognition.
As Reverend Dr. John R. Norwood, Councilman and Principal Judge of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation and National Congress of American Indians Delegate explained in an interview with Indian Country Today in November 2018: “This response was given without the knowledge or consent of the official tribal representatives to the commission [the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs.] It was also given after a 2007 independent study, commissioned by executive order, concluded that the tribes had indeed been recognized, but that the form of that recognition should be strengthened to alleviate confusion. The results of the study were subsequently ignored by both the Department of State and the New Jersey Attorney General’s office, even though they were involved and consented to the report. It boggles the mind!”
The basis for the Ramapough Lenape and Powhatan Renape settlements: The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape lawsuits against and settlement with the state of New Jersey
Attorneys General under former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie permitted efforts to undermine the status of the Ramapough Lenape, Powhatan Renape, and Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation in communications with Federal and State agencies. All three tribes lost access to: federal grants to improve members’ health, education, and workforce preparedness; contracts won by highly-rated tribally-owned businesses; the right to label and sell elders’ traditional arts and crafts as American Indian-made; and more.
In particular, the tribes alleged that:
- The state of New Jersey’s attempts to undermine recognition was motivated by racial stereotypes attributing to all American Indian tribes a desire to conduct casino gaming.
- The state of New Jersey’s actions was also driven by their offensive assumption that state recognition would somehow lead the tribes to compete with Atlantic City's established gaming interests.
The Ramapough Lenape, Powhatan Renape, and Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape have disavowed any interest in casino gaming. The Resolution of Agreement Regarding Class III Gaming and Land Claims between all three tribes signed and dated 2011 underscores their sincerity and commitment to such a compact.
The Ramapough Lenape and Powhatan Renape did not pursue litigation. However, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation filed state and federal lawsuits in 2015. The tribe identified dozens of instances over 30 years in which the State of New Jersey affirmed and celebrated the recognition of all three tribes including in two state statutes where the tribes are specifically named and referred to as “the three New Jersey tribes.”
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape compelled the state of New Jersey to disclose documents revealing that top officials evaluating the status of all three tribes ignored the abundant record of prior recognition and instead allowed their consideration to be distorted by racial stereotypes. The tribe ultimately moved for summary judgment in Federal Court with a 1,000-page filing, and their settlement with the state of New Jersey was inked in November 2018 as a decision was pending.
The importance of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape lawsuits for tribes nationwide
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape lawsuits drew national attention because of the implications for sixty-one additional historical American Indian tribes that have received state recognition but are not on the Bureau of Indian Affairs list of federally recognized tribes. State-only recognition is most prevalent in sixteen states on the East Coast where European settlers first encountered Indigenous peoples and where violence, disease, and 20th-century government-sanctioned racial discrimination took a heavy toll on Native American populations and the ability of tribes to prove their modern existence.
“The outcome of this dispute [Lenni-Lenape v. NJ] should put States on notice that even the most vulnerable tribes have constitutional rights to due process and equal treatment when it comes to an official acknowledgment of their identity,” Werkheiser stated in November 2018.
The same can now be said of the outcomes with the Ramapough Lenape Nation and Powhatan Renape Nation.
The Ramapough Lenape and Powhatan Renape Settlements
As with the Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Tribal Nation, Attorney General Grewal will issue letters to all relevant federal and state agencies reaffirming the Ramapough Lenape Nation's and Powhatan Renape Nation’s prior recognition and revoking any prior communications to the contrary.
“Let there be no ambiguity. Through this settlement, New Jersey affirms the status of both the Powhatan Renape Nation and the Ramapough Lenape Nation as American Indian Tribes recognized by the State,” Attorney General Grewal stated in a press release. “Tribal rights are significant rights, and we are glad that, through good faith negotiation, we’ve been able to reach an accord with both the Powhatan and Ramapough nations. These two tribes can now move forward without concern that state-level recognition issues will in any way impede their progress.”
"It is never easy for Native people, but these past several years have been especially trying,” Reverend Roy E. Bundy, spokesperson and representative of the Powhatan Renape stated in a press release. “We can now turn our attention fully to the hard work of building the strength of our community."
Ramapough Lenape Chief Dwayne Perry stated in a press release, "May these settlements mark the beginning of a new era of trust, cooperation, and mutual respect."
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