The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape don't quite know why, in 2012, the new Christie administration suddenly dropped 30 years of state recognition of them as an Indian tribe.
An attorney for the South Jersey-based tribe speculated that the action might have something to do with fears that the tribe might try to establish casinos, as Indian tribes have elsewhere.
Such fears are unfounded, the tribe says — right on its website. It says it considers gambling an evil.
Whatever lay behind the state's decision, the repudiation of its tribal status five years ago left the tribe in limbo and ultimately created "devastating economic and social consequences," according to a civil rights lawsuit filed against the Christie administration.
Last week, a state appellate panel found that the tribe's case had merit and could proceed.
The three-member panel reversed a lower court decision that had said the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape had no grounds for their suit. The tribe has also filed a federal lawsuit against the attorney general, claiming unlawful discrimination and violation of the members' civil rights under the U.S. Constitution. Last fall, a federal court ruled that the case could proceed, after the attorney general tried to have the case dismissed.
The New Jersey Legislature in 1982 formally recognized the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape and two other tribes as "American Indian Tribes" originating in the state — and later gave all three tribes seats on the state's Commission on Native Affairs.
But the Attorney General's Office in 2012, under then-acting Attorney General John Hoffman, told the federal government that the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape were not considered a "recognized" tribal nation. Hoffman was named as a co-defendant in the suit.
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape argue that lack of state recognition has impeded access to federal health and educational programs and grants.
The tribe also alleges that it has difficulty obtaining contracts because it can no longer market its handcrafted products, including knitwear and honey, as "Indian made," according to the tribe's lawyer Gregory Werkheiser, a civil rights attorney with Cultural Heritage Partners in Washington, who represents the tribe.
"Five judges in two courts have now told the Attorney General in detailed written opinions that if the facts alleged by the tribe are true, the tribe has legitimate claims for constitutional civil rights violations. One wonders how much clearer a message the defendant requires to realize the error of his actions," Werkheiser told NJ.com after the latest ruling.
The state hasn't indicated in any of its court filings why it refuses to officially recognize the tribe, but Werkheiser previously said that fear that New Jersey's tribes may want to establish casinos in the Garden State, similar to those of other Native Americans groups in such states as New York and Connecticut, is behind it.
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, however, have publicly stated that they "are a churchgoing people" who do not want to "bring the devil" into their tribe by operating casinos, Chief Mark Gould said in a 1993 interview with the New York Times. The tribe's website reiterates the sentiment in a lengthy statement.
In its ruling last week, the appeals panel said Superior Court Judge William Anklowitz of Mercer County erred when he ruled that the tribe "never received recognition" because the state never passed a resolution formally granting it official tribal status. The appeals panel said it found that, since 1982, the state had passed various resolutions and as late as 1995 created commissions that "clearly recognized" the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape as an American Indian tribe.
The appeals panel finding said the plaintiff is a "constitutionally organized, self-governing, inherently sovereign American Indian tribe" whose majority of members reside in the state of New Jersey. The Cumberland County-based tribe until recently operated a small tribal center and gift shop in Bridgeton's downtown and currently owns tribal lands in neighboring Salem County, where it holds an annual pow-wow each spring.
The "plaintiff has continuously received federal benefits since 1982 based on the state's recognition of it as an American Indian tribe," the appeals ruling said.