The Lenni-Lenape: No Longer an NJ Tribe?

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by Kim Silva-Martinez 

Native American Heritage Month 

Thanks to all who attended and participated in this event. Watch a video of it and see other coverage here.

New Jersey was inhabited for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived and the United States of America was formed. What official recognition should be given to the descendants of the state’s indigenous people? To discuss this multifaceted topic and observe Native American Heritage Month, faculty members from the College of Humanities and Social Sciences are sponsoring a panel discussion on State recognition:

  • Wednesday, November 18
  • 7:00 - 9:00 p.m. 
  • Feliciano School of Business, Rm 101. 
  • All are welcome; no R.S.V.P. is required!

This salient question – touching on history, culture, religion, and politics – surfaced again in the news this summer as the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation filed a civil rights lawsuit against the State of New Jersey over recognition, which it says was effectively rescinded in 2012 when the State made a federal filing saying that New Jersey had no State-recognized tribes. 

Panelists Representing The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation

The tribe of approximately 3,000 members traces its roots in the New Jersey region back 12,000 years through 500 generations. Representatives will present details on the lawsuit, including Mark Gould, Tribal Chairman; John Norwood, Tribal Court Justice; and Greg Werkheiser, lead attorney from Cultural Heritage Partners, P.L.C.C. Representatives from the New Jersey Attorney General’s office were also invited to speak; they have yet to respond.

“We think it is a really important issue in terms of New Jersey’s history and identity and the relationship with these tribes, and certainly a question of justice. We do want to raise awareness about this, and also offer an educational forum,” said organizer Mark Clatterbuck, associate professor in the department of Religion and an expert on indigenous religions in North America.

The lawsuit has implications for two other New Jersey tribes: the Powhatan-Renape Nation and the Ramapough Mountain Indians.

The event is also being organized by Elspeth Martini, Assistant Professor of History, who specializes in Native American and First Nations diplomacy in the Great Lakes area, and by Historical Archaeologist and Professor of Anthropology, Christopher Matthews, who has directed excavations and collaborative research with mixed heritage Native American and African American communities in Louisiana and New York.

In addition to raising awareness, Clatterbuck said he hopes a lively question and answer session takes place between the panel and audience about the responsibilities New Jersey has to its indigenous population.

Changes In State Status?

While the three tribes in New Jersey are not federally recognized, the state legislature passed resolutions recognizing them in the 1980s and reaffirmed recognition in other ways in years since, according to lawsuit documents. This status was undermined in 2012 when the federal General Accounting Office was informed by the State that New Jersey had no State-recognized tribes. The tribe pursued efforts to retract or revise this statement via the Attorney General and other representatives from Governor Chris Christie’s office, but the tribe was ultimately told that the administration would not work to resolve the matter, according to the lawsuit. 

Value In State Recognition

The loss of state recognition creates hardships including: 

  • The loss of the tribe’s ability to sell artwork and crafts as “Indian-made”
  • The loss of $600,000 in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Native Americans
  • The loss of tribal jobs
  • The loss of $45,000 a year in federal block grant programs designated for federally and state-recognized American Indian tribes
  • The threat of lost membership in such organizations as the National Congress of American Indians, according to organizers. 
Additionally, loss of state recognition jeopardizes the ethnic, cultural, and religious identities for members of all three tribes.

In an interview, Clatterbuck emphasized that the tribes are not a remnant of a forgotten past; they have a vibrant presence and an integral voice in New Jersey history. “They don’t need a piece of paper to tell them who they are, yet there’s a lot that comes with having that piece of paper and being recognized,” said Clatterbuck.