NJ pays $2.4 million and agrees to recognize Native American nation
BRIDGETON — The state of New Jersey has agreed to officially recognize the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape as a tribal nation and pay them $2.4 million to settle a federal lawsuit over their status.
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, with an estimated 3,000 members, is one of three tribal nations recognized by the state. The others are Ramapough Mountain Indians and the Powhatan-Renape Nation. All three have been recognized by the state since the 1980s, although none are officially recognized by the federal government.
The state recognition, however, comes with certain benefits, such as being able to sell arts and crafts under the “American Indian made” label, federal housing and health grants, scholarship opportunities, tribal jobs, business credit and memberships in professional organizations.
The state backtracked on its recognition of the nation during the Chris Christie administration, which worried that the tribal nations would try to open casinos that would compete with Atlantic City.
But the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape lawsuit pointed out that all three tribal nations in the state have a pact opposing gaming and support any law barring them from gaming activity if that would mean protecting their state recognition as tribal nations. The nation also has disassociated itself from any Native American groups and individuals that advocate gaming.
The settlement agreement between the state and the Nanticocke Lenni-Lenape, signed on Thursday and first reported on by the New Jersey Law Journal, acknowledges that the state has recognized the tribal nation since 1982. It includes a signed letter from state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal informing “relevant federal and state agencies” that the nation is a recognized tribe.
The agreement also spells out that the recognition does not confer federal casino gaming rights to the nation. The nation also agrees to make no claim that the recognition entitles them to conduct gaming in New Jersey.
The state had argued that it only “acknowledged” or “designated” the three tribes, but did not "recognize" them. The tribal nation argued that that was a distinction without a difference.
Lenni-Lenape, also known as the Delawares, trace their history back 500 generations or 12,000 years. The only Native American reservation ever established in New Jersey was for the Lenni-Lenape in Burlington County in 1758. The reservation was disbanded in 1802 and many Native Americans were pushed out of the state, even though one of the first treaties the American colonies signed after the Declaration of Independence was with the Lenape, promising them statehood and representation in exchange for their help in fighting the British. That promise was never fulfilled.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the state began making amends with the tribal nations. In 1979, the Legislature began the process of recognizing the Ramapough Mountain Indians and the Powhatan-Renape Nation. The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape was recognized in 1982. A 1991 law allowed corrections to birth certificates, which the state for decades had forced Native Americans to choose between white or black as a race.