The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation has filed a civil rights lawsuit charging that New Jersey is trying to remove its official designation as an American Indian Tribe.
The suit charges that one of the reasons the state is doing this is to stop it from opening a casino, even though the tribe has never sought to open one and has not supported gambling, which it sees as violating their religion.
The suit charges that the state’s position comes from a prejudiced opinion about native tribes and from the state’s powerful non-Indian gaming industry.
“While taking the position that it does not recognize the three New Jersey tribes, defendant has yet to articulate what exactly the tribes are, except to imply that they are something lesser and undefined,” the complaint states. “Defendant’s purported justifications for its position are pre-textual. On information and belief, the state is actually motivated by a racial-stereotype-driven and irrational fear that any American Indian tribe, if recognized as such, will seek to conduct gaming in competition with New Jersey’s politically powerful non-Indian gaming interests.”
The tribe alleges state officials have tried to rescind the official recognition, saying that the state has only “acknowledged” the three tribes, not officially recognized them, and that no due process ever existed to even grant such recognition.
The suit was filed against New Jersey acting Attorney General John Hoffman. He has not commented on the suit, but has argued in the past that only the federal government can officially designate Indian tribes.
The Nanticoke has 3,000 members and is headquartered in Bridgeton NJ. It is fighting to keep its official identity, according to the tribe.
“So many of the benefits and protections that we receive rely on some level or recognition and, psychologically, it is a tremendous impact on us—and our students in school—to have people question your identity based on if a government agency acknowledges it,” said the Rev. John Norwood, councilman and judge of the tribe.
“During the past 33 years, the Nation and its members have expended time, money, and energy in reliance on the state’s recognition; the Nation has also, to a significant degree, associated its tribal identify with that recognition,” the lawsuit states.
This recognition continued until late 2012, when the state decided to no longer recognize the Nanticoke or the two other New Jersey tribes—the Ramapough Mountain Indians and Powhatan-Renape Nation, tribe officials said.
The suit states that the tribe tried to work with the administration of Governor Chris Christie to solve these issues, but could not reach an agreement.
The suit charges that the lack of the designation hurts the tribe, as it cannot sell handmade crafts as “Indian made” and it will also lose about $600,000 in grants, 30 tribal jobs and college scholarship awards.
The lawsuit asks for the state to stop denying the Nanticoke’s official recognition and cover court fees.