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Kevin Riordan: Tribal litigation muddies waters

Soybeans grow where the people once lived and trees shade where they buried their dead in Brotherton, New Jersey's first and only Indian reservation.

Soybeans grow where the people once lived and trees shade where they buried their dead in Brotherton, New Jersey's first and only Indian reservation.

Two centuries after the community disbanded, and its inhabitants were relocated and 3,000-plus acres sold off, courts continue to consider history-based claims to what the Leni-Lenape called edgepillock, or "place of pure clear water."

Brotherton, now a substantially developed part of Shamong Township, was at the center of a May 25 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.

Culminating, for now, nearly a decade of litigation, the court upheld the dismissal of an ownership claim by the Bridgeton-based Unalachtigo Band of Nanticoke-Leni-Lenape Nation, which is eager to build a casino in New Jersey.

The appeals court, however, threw out the lower court's contention that the Stockbridge-Munsee Community of the Mohican Nation, in Wisconsin, is not descended from the 100 original inhabitants of Brotherton.

Thus, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community could more readily lay claim to the land. The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes the group as the former reservation's "successor in interest."

Details to follow. But first, let's visit the Indian Mills section of Shamong, a mostly rural but slowly suburbanizing township of nearly 7,000.

And who better to give us a tour of what was once the heart of the reservation than the affable historian George D. Flemming, author of the definitive Brotherton and a driving force behind the Indian Mills Historical Society.

"This is where the Indians had their gristmill," Flemming says as he makes one of several stops along a leafy, two-lane stretch of Willow Grove Road.

All over Shamong (Leni-Lenape for place of the horn, as in deer horn), bright-blue Historical Society signs identify the landmarks. Barely a trace of Brotherton remains visible, but Flemming easily fills in the blanks.

"This whole field was filled with log cabins, and the burial mound is down the dirt road there," says the retired insurance investigator, who grew up in Audubon, lives in Leisuretown, and turns 75 Sunday.

"When the reservation disbanded in 1802, there were about 80 people living here," Flemming adds. "They had asked to leave. The state had done very little to support them."

A dozen wagons, paid for with the proceeds of the land sales, transported the men, women, and children to Upstate New York. They had been invited there by a community of Oneidas, who later migrated to Wisconsin and are today's Stockbridge-Munsee Community.

The community contested the latest ownership claim by the Unalachtigo Band, now known as the Brotherton Delaware Tribe of New Jersey. The federal and state governments have not recognized either incarnation of the latter group, whose members say they are Brotherton descendants.

But since 2001, the organization has assiduously sought to gain title to the former reservation land.

"This fight is far from over. . . . This is our struggle for freedom," says James Brent Thomas Sr., chairman of Brotherton Delaware. A plan to use Brotherton as a stepping-stone to securing a casino site in Bergen County "is still on the table," he adds.

The Stockbridge-Munsee, who already have a casino in Wisconsin, have not made any claim to the Brotherton land and have no plans to do so, says attorney Donald B. Veix Jr. of Antheil, Maslow & MacMinn in Princeton.

The Stockbridge-Munsee have "absolutely nothing on the books" regarding Brotherton, Veix says. "Their hand was forced by the claim" by the Unalachtigo Band.

Flemming, who has Scotch-Irish heritage, believes the Brotherton descendants are in Wisconsin. Some of the family names, he adds, have been documented.

He stops at the Shamong Township municipal building, where the Historical Society has an impressive display of artifacts.

Photographs show 19th-century churches and farm families who go back generations. Glass cases hold stone tools and other implements many thousands of years old.

Human beings have been living in the lush landscape of what's now Shamong Township for a very long time - well before there were such things as claims and courts.