THE BUFFALO are gone, the beating drums replaced by tree branches colliding in the winter wind, and on a frigid afternoon last month a wide, metal gate blocked the entrance to what was once South Jersey's only Native-American reservation.

Beyond the gate, down a snow-covered road, the Powhatan Renape Nation's museum sat empty, its artifacts in storage. Deeper in the forest, two-pronged deer tracks led to the late Chief Roy Crazy Horse's rancher, built illegally atop a bluff overlooking Rancocas Creek, birds now fluttering in and out of its chimney and broken windows.

"There are no more Indians here," said a woman walking two small dogs on the land the tribe leased for 25 years in Westampton Township, Burlington County. "All their stuff is gone."

In fact, more than deer and dogs are afoot among the Powhatan Renape these days. A self-proclaimed leader with an impossibly long name and a confusing past says he's taking the reins and reclaiming the reservation, whether council members like it or not.

"I am the heir to the Powhatan Empire," said Crown Prince Emperor El Bey Bigbay. "I don't deal with the council. The council is null and void."

The Crown Prince - as he wishes to be called - is Trenton native William McRea, 40, known in the capital for the horses he keeps on his half of a duplex.

According to news accounts, McRae has been charged with using fake diplomatic tags, driving without a license and failure to pay child support. He has claimed that U.S. laws don't apply to him because he's a member of the Abannaki Aboriginal Nation, which the Southern Poverty Law Center considers a "fringe black separatist group."

The Powhatan Renape Nation, on the other hand, is recognized by the New Jersey Commission on Native American Affairs, and in better days it hosted thousands of people from all over the country at an annual arts festival on what used to be called the Rankokus Indian Reservation.

The tribe has struggled in recent years due to financial mismanagement and organizational issues, losing the 237-acre parcel it leased from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

'You can't just pop up'

The council is still active, and its members are aware of the Crown Prince. They just don't know what to do about him.

"We don't know where he came from. We don't know anything about him," said Obie Batchelor, a Powhatan Renape member from Pennsauken, Camden County. "He just popped up out of the woodwork. You can't just pop up and claim yourself chief."

But the Crown Prince can't simply be written off as eccentric or prone to gibberish: He has managed to get control of the Powhatan Renape Nation's phone number and he's accepted artifacts on behalf of the tribe, posing for pictures with elderly women in a large headdress that no Powhatan ever wore.

On Twitter, he's been urging hip-hop star Kanye West to take his place among the tribe.

"I had to get him kicked off the website, but he paid the phone bill and claimed the phone number," Batchelor said.

The Crown Prince also made an inquiry to the state about getting the land back. The DEP - in a January 2013 letter addressed to "Chief Crown Prince Emperor El Bey Bagby (Holmes) Pamunkey" - politely declined.

But the Crown Prince vows to fight on.

"I am getting back on that land, whether it's professionally or whether we have to go out there and do it ourselves," he told the Daily News.

'I'm not an actor'

One of the Crown Prince's goals, he said, is to "clean up" the Powhatan name, which he said has been dragged through the mud. He's also tried to raise $150,000 on the website, although no one has donated.

He said that his bloodline can be traced to Chief Powhatan himself, in eastern Virginia. He said that he answers to someone in King William County, Va., along with the United Nations and an empress in Switzerland.

"I'm not an actor and I'm not a comedian," he said. "I'm a real person in the flesh."

But JoAnne Hawkins, the Powhatan Renape representative on the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs, is not impressed with the man who claims to be the tribe's new leader.

"He isn't legitimate," Hawkins said. "He has nothing to do with Powhatan Renape Nation."

Doreen Adele "Autumn Wind" Scott, the commission's chairwoman and a member of North Jersey's Ramapough Lenape Nation, said she had heard about the Crown Prince and would look into his claims.

But other Powhatan members and people posting on Native-American website forums have questioned why the council hasn't taken action against the Crown Prince.

"Our tribal leadership lacks a spiritual foundation, so we're unable to thrive as an organized Nation and it appears non-members are taking advantage of our time of weakness," Wendy Logan, a Powhatan formerly from South Jersey, said in an email from Arizona.

On Twitter: @JasonNark